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