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Eisenhower’s Cold War strategy and the Dulles brothers

Published on 28 March 2014
Updated on 29 March 2024

This post is a musing on Stephen Kinzer’s book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles & Their Secret World War.

Rising tensions and the Axis alliance

Germany, Italy, and Japan were latecomers to the European-led international system, and had difficulty fitting in and gaining a shaping role (see The Logic of Conformity: Japan’s Entry into International Society by Tomoko T. Okagaki). For one, the first-tier countries, including the UK and France, had already carved out plum colonial properties (India, much of Southeast Asia, and most of Africa). Additionally, these three Axis countries were impatient with the informal pecking order among the first-tier members. They adopted an aggressive stance and concocted totalitarian ideologies to mobilise their citizens (all of which were dreadful, with one being particularly so).

The image shows a photograph of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in 1940.
Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in 1940 (FBI).

Two world wars ensued. These upstarts were all taught manners – a brutal process that destroyed untold millions of lives. The Axis ideologies were uncompromisingly condemned, and the liberal credo, emphasising freedom and private property, was affirmed. Other countries were either colonies, potential colonies (China), or too distant to count (the Americas, with the USA reluctantly entering into the system after WWI).

Russia’s path to the USSR

Russia was the ‘odd one out’. Preeminent in Europe after Napoleon, its expansion toward the Mediterranean was checked at Sebastopol. Newcomer Japan added insult to injury at Tsushima. After losing out in WWI, Russia reconfigured itself as a communist country. The Soviet Union was shunned by the Western international system. In a ruthless manner, it mobilised its human and natural resources to undergo modernisation.

Arguably, before WWII, the Soviet Union was the most powerful country. Much of the effort was for heavy weapons. Whether the USSR wanted to export its revolution by the din of arms or simply feared Germany is a matter for debate. Personally, I suspect Stalin of conning Hitler into starting WWII with the Non-aggression Pact, expecting the sweep into Europe as the liberator from German oppression after the Western powers had wounded each other deeply (see Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II by Viktor Suvorov). Hitler caught Stalin wrong-footed in the nick of time. What would have happened had Stalin indeed surprised Hitler?

WWII reaffirmed the now-Western international order. It was done mainly by outsourcing the fighting against Germany to the Soviets. The ‘paymaster’ was America, which supplied the weaponry (the USA personally took care of far less powerful Japan and dropped the A-bomb to hasten Japan’s surrender and deprive the Soviet Union of a role in that theatre).

Postwar changes to the Western international system

The end of WWII revealed hidden challenges to the Western international system:

– The Soviet Union had created a universalist ideology. Not since the French Revolution had the world confronted such a challenge: imperial ambitions were no longer territorial; they were ideological. Communist ideology could be exported anywhere and was not dependent on Soviet occupation. The empire could be expanded by conquest or co-optation of local elites. There was no ‘rational’ limit to the Soviet Union’s ambitions. Asia was the region where ‘co-optation’ played out most. Mao, not Stalin, won China for communism. Kim Il Sung triggered the Korean War, overcoming Stalin’s and Mao’s hesitations.

The image shows a photograph of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in 1943
Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, 1943 (National Geographic).

– The colonial system could no longer be sustained. Having fought under the banner of liberty, the Western international system could not easily repudiate calls for self-determination. Yet, colonialism had crippled traditional institutions in colonised countries and promoted an alienation of choice in real estate, favouring exploitative foreign ownership, which created a great divergence, if not underdevelopment (see The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz). The transition from colonial status to sustainable independence was uncharted territory.

One must stress the sudden character of this post-war development. Concentration on winning the war had suppressed serious thinking about these issues. Also, it implied a world upside-down: having done the utmost to preserve the core of the Western international system, the next challenge came from the periphery.

The development also seemed intractable on account of the direct interconnections between the two challenges. Worldwide, the USSR could no longer be ignored as it had been before WWII. Interconnections originated in the liberation dynamic. Countries yearning for independence could now exploit the ideological split between the two sides to advance their cause of upsetting the West’s international system. Thanks to their revolutionary credentials, the Soviets could co-opt revolutionary elites of the Third World. These elites were, in any case, attracted by the Soviet development performance in the run-up to WWII and saw its centralistic approach as a doable model for fast development. The West finally could not conceive of neutralism as a durable option. It saw neutralism just as a holding pattern before landing in the less desirable of the two camps; the West’s antics at the prospect made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Vietnam yields a good example of such interconnections. Ho Chi Minh had valuably assisted in the resistance against the Japanese occupation. He demanded independence at the war’s end. France opposed this: De Gaulle argued that the loss of the French empire would push his country toward communism. He was both a nationalist and a communist. Cooptation by the Soviet Union could not be excluded. The result was first a proxy war; after an interlude, the USA chose direct intervention (see Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall).

Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers

The immediate US response to the Soviet challenge was ‘containment’, a strategic policy aimed at preventing the spread of communism beyond its existing borders. For a while, the nuclear monopoly masked the difficulty of pursuing this policy. However, the monopoly was soon shattered. Korea demonstrated the inherent fragility of containment: it was exceedingly costly, and the inevitable outcome, a draw, was politically unsustainable. A volunteer army is prepared to win or lose, not to incur losses for a draw. Note that the founding document of the Cold War on the US side, NSC 68, was drafted before but approved by Truman after the start of the Korean War (1950–1953).

Eisenhower was aware of the dilemma. He hit upon a ‘solution’: nuclear terror to secure Soviet overall immobility, and covert operations to plug any local punctures in the ‘containment wall’ likely to bring a critical country into Soviet orbit. It was inexpensive, while allowing the USA to retain the moral high ground. In his farewell address, Eisenhower cautioned the country against the consequences of relentless overt containment: it would set the country on a permanent war footing, something that has been destructive to democratic societies.

In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, John Foster Dulles served as Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959, while his brother, Allen Dulles, served as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1953 to 1961.

The image shows a photograph in which John Foster Dulles (right) is greeted by his brother Allen Welsh Dulles on his arrival at LaGuardia Field in New York City in 1948.
John Foster Dulles (right) is greeted by his brother Allen Welsh Dulles on his arrival at LaGuardia Field in New York City in 1948 (Wbur).

The Dulles brothers secured the fulfilment of Eisenhower’s strategic approach. John ensured the credibility of the nuclear threat by portraying the Russian challenge in Manichean terms, while Allen undertook covert actions in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Congo, and finally, Cuba, just to name the main endeavours.

Eisenhower’s Cold War Strategy

Was Eisenhower’s strategy inevitable? With hindsight, it is easy to argue that it was an inappropriate response. ‘Had the US aggressively pursued decolonisation, the West might have attracted emergent countries to its side‘ is one argument (see No Peace For Asia by Harold R. Isaacs). This, however, was an unlikely proposition. For one, the process was uncharted (hence fraught with perceived dangers); moreover, the USA had profited under the colonial system. The Western post-colonial model of ‘liberty and protection of property’ inevitably favoured the existing colonial or para-colonial status quo. It was doomed. Furthermore, an adaptive approach would have disappointed national expectations. South Korea is a good example. After the armistice, North Korea developed faster under central planning. Its GDP per capita was double that of the South by 1960, despite the war’s destruction. The South took off as a result of the Vietnam War contingency, just as Japan had profited from the Korean War (see The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov).

The image shows a photograph of John Foster Dulles ands Dwight D. Eisenhower
John Foster Dulles ands Dwight D. Eisenhower (Action Institute).

‘The Soviet Union had no expansionist ambitions.’ Hindsight has confirmed this, but it leaves open the issue of communist co-optation of nationalist movements. China is the core example. The USSR’s original conundrum was rooted in being the only country hosting communism. This development was contrary to established dogma and led to fear that the communist revolution might not survive unless it expanded. After WWI, the stance may simply have reflected the insight that communism had achieved sustainability, and the tide was flowing in its favour anyway. For the US government, abandoning Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist leader of the Republic of China, in favour of Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Party of China, would have been, in any case, inconceivable. Would Mao, given a chance, have opted for the nationalist rather than the communist trajectory and settled for Western assistance?

Understanding the Cold War is one of the most difficult tasks for a student of international relations. The path-dependent outcomes are so strong and seem inevitable – one finds it exceedingly difficult to imagine credible counterfactuals. Therefore, I’m not ready to condemn the Dulles brothers as Cold Warmongers. Personally, I doubt that in their absence, things would have developed in a radically different direction.

The fact of their personal ties remains a key contingency. This unique situation made it easy to achieve consensus on covert operations in Washington and ensured smooth sailing throughout Eisenhower’s presidency. I doubt that the strategy of covert operations could have been sustained otherwise, particularly since these operations tend to succeed more from luck than from skill.

There is one further Dulles sibling hidden within the story: Eleanor Dulles, probably the smartest of the lot but handicapped by gender and possibly sexual orientation. She worked for the State Department at a sufferance (including that of Foster) and was thrown out by Robert Kennedy. What would have been her contribution had her voice been injected into the duo? A fascinating question to ask.


It has not escaped my attention that ‘covert operations’ in the 1950s have much in common with ‘smart operations’ (drones, etc.), which are the preferred course of the US as the Afghan War winds down. In each instance, the solution is cheap, the collateral damage is limited, and the effort can be sustained indefinitely without loss of political support in the USA.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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