American interventionism has a secret, sordid history. According to award-winning journalist Stephen Kinzer, there are two particular men to thank.
In The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, Kinzer chronicles the lives of dour “Foster,” the 52nd secretary of state, and younger brother Allen, a charming rake and the first civilian director of the nascent Central Intelligence Agency. “It was remarkable to me to see the contrast between the two personalities alongside the absolute similarity of their points of view. That adds a remarkable personal aspect to this book and makes it much more than a political story,” Kinzer says. “It’s really a human story, and I tried very much to convey the private lives of both.”
The book opens on Lake Ontario, where three generations fish from a boat—a grandfather, an uncle and two small boys. The young ones’ rise would fulfill a dynastic promise: Their grandfather, who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln, and uncle were the respective 32nd and 42nd secretaries of state. “Later in life [Allen] came to believe that his interest in espionage was shaped in part by the experience of ‘finding the fish, hooking the fish and playing the fish, [working] to draw him in and tire him until he’s almost glad to be caught in the net,’” writes Kinzer.
The Dulles boys seamlessly segued from a pious upbringing in Western New York to corporate law offices in Washington, D.C. Their high-profile clients’ private holdings became public concerns when the brothers entered the Eisenhower administration, touting “liberal internationalism,” aka corporate globalism as a prime diplomatic directive. Despite contrasting personalities, they moved as one.
They staged assassinations, coups and propaganda campaigns from Iran to Guatemala, Indonesia to Cuba, punishing other nations for Communism and neutrality alike. Kinzer quotes the writing of Indonesian President Sukarno, whose neutralist stance, mendayung antara dua karang, or “rowing between two reefs,” was spurned by the United States. “America likes you only if you’re on the side she selects,” Suharto wrote. “If you don’t go along with her totally, you’re automatically considered to have entered the Soviet bloc.” Foster Dulles’ retort was, as Suharto put it, “America’s policy is global. You must be on one side or the other. Neutralism is immoral.”
Indonesia’s non-alignment with the Soviet Union was treated with suspicion and hostility. The brothers launched similarly aggressive campaigns in Guatemala, the Congo, Vietnam, Cuba and Iran to preserve American interests under tenuous auspices.
Kinzer insists that the at-times shocking revelations of bad behavior by the brothers be understood in context: “The Dulles brothers did not hijack America. They embodied America,” he says. “To understand them is to understand who we are.” They did not create or pervert American ideals; they simply symbolized a step forward in a natural evolution. But their existence stands at odds to American self-conception, and their story is no longer widely known. “Maybe we have airbrushed them out of history because they tell us things that we’re not so comfortable hearing,” says Kinzer. Today the Dulles name is less associated with the men who bore it than the namesake Washington, D.C. airport. The bust of Foster that once marked the spot with prominence has been relocated to a remote conference room.
The culmination of an oeuvre (All the Shah’s Men , Overthrow  and others) featuring the Dulles brothers in supporting roles, The Brothers draws them from the shadows, provoking a reevaluation of their influence and its effects. “As long as Americans believe their country has vital interests everywhere on earth,” Kinzer writes, “they will be led by people who believe the same.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.