Thursday, May 21, 2015

Homegrown monsters

The assertion in Stephen Kinzer's The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War that haunts me is this:

Even after lifetimes serving the case of economic colonialism, Foster and Allen considered themselves anti-colonial. They rationalized their use of violence with the conviction that their cause -- the once-in-a-millenium confrontation between civilization and barbarism -- was so transcendent that it justified any extreme. Many Americans agreed.

I remember bathing in that myth in my childhood. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles loomed over us under the Eisenhower administration in the shadow of the Soviet bomb. We were taught by the media that this strange buttoned up man was standing between us and the mushroom cloud. I don't remember doubting, but I don't remember feeling reassured either. According to this book, Dulles didn't want us reassured; if we had been, we might not have thought we needed his threats, posturing, and pampering of regional dictators.

Stephen Kinzer has been chronicling the U.S. proclivity for meddling in and overturning faraway governments for an entire journalistic career. During the Central American wars of the 1980s, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala was an essential text for anti-intervention activists. All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (curiously only available on Kindle and in large print) covers the necessary background to understand current hostility between the U.S. and Iran. He summarized the consequence of that 1953 operation:

...[the C.I.A. sponsored-coup against an elected leader] taught tyrants and aspiring tyrants there that the world's most powerful governments were willing to tolerate limitless oppression as long as oppressive regimes were friendly to the West and to Western oil companies.

More recently, he tried to envision how U.S. relations with the long suffering powers of the Middle East and Central Asia might be organized differently in Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future.

In the The Brothers he tells the history of the two men who, together, for several decades accomplished consolidation of U.S. empire. Allen was the rather unreflective rake who invented the post-World War II C.I.A. John Foster should have been a Methodist preacher; instead he had license under Eisenhower to try to impose his version of the American Dream on an unwilling world by any means short of war. Both men had been Wall Street lawyers when not in government. They had no doubt that they were doing good by making their clients and themselves wealthy men, by suppressing godless Communism and any other stirrings of independent development among the world's natives. They had no qualms about their own paternalism, racism and promotion of exploitation in the service of greed. They would have been right at home with a George W. Bush aide, most likely Karl Rove, who told a writer: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality...."

At this distance, the picture is sickening. Kinzer doesn't want to let us his U.S. readers off the hook easily.

The half century of history that has unfolded since Foster and Allen passed from the scene suggests that they share responsibility for much that has gone wrong in the world. The blame however does not end with them. To gaze at their portraits and think, "They did it," would be reassuring. It would also be unfair. Americans who seek to understand the roots of their country's trouble in the world should not look at Foster and Allen's portraits but in a mirror.

Foster and Allen exemplified the nation that produced them. ...

The story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America. Their determination to project power was the same impulse that pushed settlers across prairies and over mountains, wrested rich territories from Mexico, crushed Native American resistance, and drew the United States into wars from Central America to Siberia. It remains potent. As long as Americans believe their country has vital interests everywhere on earth, they will be led by people who believe the same.

Kinzer is not wrong here. This book, and his entire oeuvre, put us in a harsh and accurate light.

But there are other U.S. histories that could lead to other stories. John Quincy Adams comes to mind.

America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. ...

As empire declines and world power rebalances, just maybe we can nurture that strain in our past.


tina said...

what has changed?

Hattie said...

Not everyone was taken in by those people, even then. They did manage to scare the shit out of everyone, though, with threats of THE BOMB.
Remember Carol Burnett singing, "I made a fool of myself over John Foster Dulles?" It's on You Tube.

Rainer said...

American history doesn't begin with Eisenhower. All oppressive institutions which developed in the Fifties have existed, at least nuclear, under Roosevelt and Truman. I understand that that's difficult to accept for Democrats (even if it is well known to Libertarians and Paleoconservatives).

Rainer said...

There was nothing "monstrous" or even unusual about them. They followed a logic - and used institutions - which had been founded by Roosevelt and Truman. I understand that this is difficult to accept for Democrats.

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