by Stephen Kinzer
Who cares what is written in a book about dead people? Biographers may be pardoned for asking us that question; however, I came to find that my own research into the lives of the Dulles brothers has had a concrete, tangible effect that I never anticipated.
My investigations laid the groundwork for a delightful opening to my book The Brothers, where I explain that as Dulles International Airport opened in 1962, a bust of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was placed at the center of the terminal, but that the bust was later moved to a closed conference room out of public view. During my promotional tour, I often began my presentations by telling that same story. I intended it to show how fully John Foster Dulles has faded from our national memory. During the 1950s, Dulles and his brother Allen, director of the CIA, used their vast power to throw countries from Iran to Indonesia into chaos. Most literate human beings on the face of the earth knew the name “Dulles”, and many feared the violent threat it represented. Today, the Dulles brothers are largely forgotten. That reflects our eagerness to airbrush from our history figures whose policies worked out badly for the United States and the world.
Photograph of the author with a painting of John F. Dulles. Image credit: James Linkin/Caucus.
After several months of leading with the tale of the disappearing bust in dozens of speeches and interviews, a friend called me with an amazing piece of news—he had just passed through Dulles Airport and seen the bust of John Foster Dulles. I later confirmed that it has been removed from its hiding place and returned to public display. It’s not back at the center of the airport, but in one of the halls through which arriving travelers pass after leaving their planes. Just as there was no explanation of how the bust disappeared in the 1990s, there was no public announcement of the decision to return it to view. I dare to suspect, however, that it had something to do with my resurrection of their memory. Perhaps someone who read my book, or heard one of my speeches or interviews, concluded that it was wrong for a bust of the airport’s namesake to be hidden away, and helped arrange for it to be moved to a place where people could see it.
My first reaction to this news was to congratulate myself. Moving the Dulles bust is hardly a major act of public policy, but it seemed to suggest that biographies can have some impact, however small or symbolic. After a while, however, my view began to change. I’m no longer sure that my role in this act—if I did have a role—contributed to a broader understanding of American history. I still believe that the Dulles brothers deserve a larger role in our modern narrative, but placing the bust of the elder brother back on public view strips their story of essential context. Passers-by may have no idea of the havoc they wreaked. I wrote The Brothers in an effort to show how mistaken their approach to the world was, and how much harm it caused to both the nations they targeted and to the United States itself. None of that is clear when one walks past the bust. I fear that instead, travelers may assume John Foster Dulles was a far-seeing secretary of state who deserves an honored place in the American pantheon.
I am left conflicted by this turn of events. It’s gratifying to know—or suspect—that us biographers could move someone to action. I’m not at all sure, though, that this action contributed to the cause of historical truth.
Especially disturbing is the fact that this bust was placed back on public view at a time when the United States seems to have reverted back to some of the worst habits of the Dulles era. When President George W. Bush placed three countries he disliked into an “axis of evil,” he was echoing one of the Dulles brothers’ most pernicious principles: that any nation failing to embrace American policies is automatically some kind of enemy. The idea that we should allow countries to find their own way, which was anathema to the Dulles brothers, remains difficult for some of our leaders to accept. We have adopted our own standards for what kinds of behavior we will and will not accept from other countries, and have harshly punished leaders who defy us. Our resurgent interventionism is at least partly to blame for the effective collapse of at least four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. None was led by gentle or virtuous men, but millions of their citizens now suffer more painfully than they did before. They are modern counterparts of the Guatemalans and Vietnamese who were killed or found their lives devastated after interventions directed by the Dulles brothers.
It is bad enough that the world is still trying to repair the consequences of coups and wars the Dulles brothers orchestrated. Worse is that we are continuing to carry out interventions whose effects will plague future generations. The impulse is easy to understand. American leaders are persuaded, or persuade themselves, that our country faces an imminent threat to its survival. By whatever name—communism during the Dulles era, terrorism today—this threat is seen as so urgent that all means are justified in the fight to crush it. Even if we realize that our tactics may have bad long-term consequences, we press ahead because we are so terrified by what we see as the immediate threat. Our relative youth as a nation, and our inbred conviction that we can deal with whatever trouble the future holds, leads us to minimize long-term dangers.
Misjudgments by John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles during the 1950s led to gradual weakening of American strategic power. Since the beginning of the new century, we have made a series of remarkably similar misjudgments. We still imagine that people everywhere want, or should want, to be like us, support us, and cheer us. When they do not, we consider them potential enemies.
The Dulles brothers have profound lessons to teach us, and I wrote of their historical impact to suggest what those are. While it is modestly gratifying to see that my work potentially served to relocate the bust, its larger message—that charging recklessly into faraway lands is dangerous—remains largely unheard. Only when the United States replaces utopian interventionism with a prudently modest approach to the world will the Dulles era be truly over.
STEPHEN KINZER is the author of Reset, Overthrow, All the Shah’s Men, and numerous other books. An award-winning foreign correspondent, he served as the bureau chief for the New York Times in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua and as the Boston Globe’s Latin American correspondent. He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, contributes to The New York Review of Books, and writes a column on world affairs for The Guardian. He lives in Boston. His latest book is The Brothers.