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The Dulles siblings revisited

Published on 28 January 2014
Updated on 06 March 2023

A musing on Stephen KINZER (2013): The brothers. John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and their secret world war. Henry Holt, New York)

Late-comers to the European-led international system – Germany, Italy, and Japan – had a difficult time fitting in,[1] and gaining a “shaping” role. For one, the first tier countries had carved out plum colonial properties already (India, much of South East Asia, most of Africa). Also, the stragglers were impatient with the informal pecking order among first-tier members. They resorted to an aggressive stance and concocted totalitarian ideologies to mobilize their citizens (all of them were awful – one was particularly so). Two world wars ensued. These upstarts were all taught manners – a brutal affair that destroyed untold millions of lives. The ideologies were uncompromisingly condemned, and the liberal credo (freedom and private property) affirmed.

The “rest of the world” had a “taker” role in the international system: the countries were either colonies, potential colonies (China), or too distant to count (the Americas – the US reluctantly entered into the system after WWI).

Russia was the “odd man out.” Preponderant in Europe after Napoleon, its expansion toward the Mediterranean had been checked at Sebastopol. Newcomer Japan added insult to injury at Tsushima. After losing out in WWI, Russia reconfigured as a Communist country. The Soviet Union was shunned by the Western international system. In ruthless manner, it mobilized its human and natural resources to modernize.[2] Arguably, before WWII the Soviet Union was the most powerful country.

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 US 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 theater).

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. The ideology could be exported anywhere and was not dependent on Soviet occupation. The empire could be expanded by conquest or cooptation of local elites.[3] There was no “rational” – that is, calculable – limit to the Soviet Union’s ambitions.

· 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, the colonial experience had crippled traditional institutions in the colonized countries as well as alienated choice real estate in favor of exploitative foreign ownership, creating a great divergence[4] (if not under-development). 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 had moved center stage: it could no longer be ignored as 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 war’s end. France opposed this: De Gaulle argued that the loss of the French empire would push his country toward Communism. Ho 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 US chose direct intervention.[5]

The immediate US response to the Soviet challenge was “containment.” For a while, the nuclear monopoly masked the difficulty of pursuing this policy. The monopoly was soon shattered. Korea showed the inherent fragility of containment:[6] it was exceedingly costly, and the inevitable outcome – a draw – politically unsustainable. A volunteer army is prepared to win or lose, not to incur losses for a draw.

Eisenhower was aware of the dilemma; he hit on a “solution”: nuclear terror to secure Soviet overall immobility, and covert operations to plug any local puncturing of the “containment wall” likely to take the critical country into the Soviet orbit. It was cheap, while allowing the US to retain the high ground. Eisenhower’s farewell address 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 of democratic societies.

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

Was Eisenhower’s strategy inevitable? With hindsight, it is easy to argue that it was an inappropriate response. “Had the US aggressively pursued de-colonization,[7] the West might have attracted emergent countries to its side” was one argument. This was an unlikely proposition. For one, the very process was uncharted (hence fraught with perceived dangers); also the US had profited under the colonial system. The Western post-colonial model of “liberty and protection of property” inevitably favored the existing colonial or para-colonial status quo (and the interests of say United Fruit). It was doomed. Also, an adaptive approach would have disappointed national expectations.[8]

“The Soviet Union had no expansionist ambitions.” Hindsight has confirmed this[9], but it leaves open the issue of Communist co-optation of nationalist movements. China here is the core example. For the US government, abandoning Chiang Kai-shek in favor of Mao would have been in any case unconceivable. 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 of the student in international relations. The path-dependent outcomes are so strong, and seem so inevitable – one has the hardest of times imagining credible counterfactuals. I’m not ready, therefore, to damn the Dulles brothers as Cold-War mongers. Personally, I doubt that in their absence things would have developed in a radically different direction.

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

There is one further “Dulles sibling” hidden within the story: Eleanor Dulles, probably the smartest of the lot, but handicapped by sex, 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 50es have much in common with “smart operations” (drones etc.), which are the US preferred course as the Afghan War winds down. In each instance the solution is cheap, the collateral damage limited, and the effort can be sustained indefinitely without loss of political support in the US.

[1] Tomoko T. OKAGAKI (2013): The logic of conformity. Japan’s entry into international society. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

[2] Much of the effort was for heavy weapons. Whether the USSR wanted to export its revolution by 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-agression Pact, expecting the sweep into Europe as the liberator from German oppression after the Western powers had wounded each other deeply. See: Viktor SUVOROV (2008): The chief culprit. Stalin’s grand design to start World War II. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis. Hitler caught Stalin wrong-footed in the nick of time. What would have happened, had Stalin indeed surprised Hitler?

[3] 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.

[4] See e.g. Kenneth POMERANZ (2000): The great divergence. China, Europe, and the making of the modern world. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[5] See: Fredrik LOGEVALL (2012): Embers of war. The fall of an empire and the making of America’s Vietnam. Random House, New York.

[6] NSC 68, the founding document of the Cold War on the US side, was drafted before, but approved by Truman after the start of the Korean War.

[7] See: Harold ISAACS (1967): No peace for Asia. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. The book had been first published in 1947. It did not help that the author was a Marxist – even though he proved prescient.

[8] South Korea is a good example. After the armistice, the North developed faster under central planning. Its GDP per capita was double that of the South by 1960, despite the war destruction. The South took off as the result of the Vietnam War contingency, just as Japan had profited from the Korean War. See: Andre LANKOV (2013): The real North Korea. Life and politics in the failed Stalinist utopia. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[9] The USSR’s original conundrum was rooted in being the only country on earth hosting Communism. This development was contrary to established dogma, and it led to fear that the revolution may 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 favor anyway.

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