May 17, 2019

The Brothers

"Americans who seek to understand the roots of their country's trouble in the world should look not at [the Dulles brothers'] portraits but in a mirror."
--Stephen Kinzer

The Brothers, a study of John Foster and Allen Dulles written by the distinguished author Stephen Kinzer in 2013, bids fair to being one of the most significant works published during the past twenty years. Foster, as he was known, was chosen by President Eisenhower to be his secretary of state; Allen, to be the director of the CIA. During Ike's administration, the two of them managed to wreak havoc and spread misery across the globe, and do a lot of domestic damage as well. But Kinzer's study is notable for insisting, repeatedly, that this was hardly a one-sided snow job, or mind-fuck--Noam Chomsky's "manufactured consent"--foisted on the American people by the Power Elite. Rather, the consent was more on the order of popular enthusiasm, to the point of mass hysteria, congruent with the deepest elements of the American psyche. The appropriate metaphor for this supposed takeover of the American mind, then, is not rape, but something more akin to consensual sex.

I was stunned to read this because the one thing critics are not supposed to say--it being so politically incorrect--is that the core of our dilemmas is the American people themselves. Somehow, The American People are sacred, untouchable, a kind of mystical entity; whereas if they are seen for what they really are--gullible, not very bright, blinkered, egotistical, and actually quite violent in nature--then there is very little hope for any major social or political change. And in fact, Kinzer offers no real solution to our national dementia, our formulaic and frenzied way of living, because there is none. Hence the last two sentences of the book, referring to the Dulles brothers: "They are us. We are them."

John Foster Dulles died on 24 May 1959, and the whole nation went into mourning. Thousands lined up outside the National Cathedral to pass by the bier, weeping over his body in an orgy of emotion. This was, Kinzer argues, because the man embodied everything that Americans believed, going back a long ways. What were these beliefs? Exceptionalism--the notion that we are more moral than others and therefore can do whatever we want to in the world, including acting cruelly; missionary Christianity--that we have an obligation to bring "truth" to the unenlightened (i.e., the non-Christian and non-American); the right to accumulate vast wealth, even (or especially) at the expense of weaker nations; and a simplistic, Manichaean view of things that had little room for empathy in it. Americans, not just Foster, saw themselves represented in films such as Shane and High Noon, movies of the early fifties that depicted a once-peaceful and innocent place threatened by evil, and saved by a hero. "The story of the Dulles brothers," writes Kinzer, "is the story of America."

All of this is bred in our bones, imperialism included. Should we be surprised that Thomas Jefferson coveted Cuba, and wanted to annex it? He stated that along with Florida, it would give the US control over the Gulf of Mexico and nearby countries. Control, control, control; what else is life about? A little over a century later, in 1917, Foster was involved in the US military intervention in Cuba--his first foreign intervention.

Foster, it turns out, was a great admirer of the Nazi regime, presumably because of its opposition to communism. In 1934 he brought I.G. Farben (later the manufacturer of Zyklon B gas, used in the Nazi death camps) into a nickel cartel, thus giving the Nazis access to the cartel's resources; and his law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, contributed heavily to the Nazi Party, setting it up as a going concern. Foster urged the German branch of his firm to avoid Jewish clients, and made trips to Germany in 1936, 1937, and 1939, declaring his admiration for Hitler, saying how "dynamic" the country now was. Kristallnacht (1938) apparently bothered him not at all, and he was perfectly OK with the German branch signing its letters Heil Hitler!When his sister, Eleanor, married a Jew, both he and Allen refused to attend the wedding.

In 1943 Foster published Six Pillars of Peace, in which he rejected what he called the "devil theory" of foreign policy that imagined a heroic nation surrounded by villains. But within two years of that, he did a complete volte face, adopting the very theory he had previously scorned. This view of Russia as the center of a global conspiracy, writes Kinzer, hardly placed him at the outer fringes of public opinion. Rather, this simplistic, monolithic, and significantly misguided view of communism--the failure, for example, to see various nationalistic movements and internal conflicts as having nothing to do with Moscow or Marxism--"reflected impulses and attitudes deeply woven into the national psyche." Foster saw in communism something he never saw in Nazism: the ultimate evil. Meanwhile, Americans projected Nazism onto the USSR, and they shared Foster's terrifying world view, that we were engaged in a titanic struggle over the fate of civilization itself. Harry Rositzke, an OSS veteran (Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA), later wrote that the whole nation was in a state of hysteria, caught up in a kind of holy war. When Sukarno of Indonesia visited the US in 1956, he commented on how full of fear Americans were--of everything. Not just of communists, he said, but also of dandruff, B.O., and bad breath. There was no end to it really. Sukarno was amazed.

The voices that opposed this national insanity (allegorized by Arthur Miller in The Crucible) were few and far between. Reinhold Niebuhr asserted that the greatest threat to the United States was "the egotism of Americans and their leaders," adding that we were blinded by "hatred and vainglory." Diplomat George Kennan referred to Foster as "a dangerous man," seized by "emotional [read: rabid] anticommunism." Senator Taft of Ohio rejected the notion of an American missionary destiny. But this small handful of insightful critics were moving against the grain, and easily ignored.

Where was Ike in all this? This was, for me, another revelation of Kinzer's book, based on research most of which appeared after I published Dark Ages America in 2006. In that book, using the scholarship then available, I depicted Eisenhower as a kind of stooge of Foster's, a man who looked the other way while his secretary of state carried out his secret, nefarious plans, such as the overthrow of legitimately elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). Apparently, just the reverse was true: Ike was really the guiding spirit, even architect, of US foreign policy, with Foster acting as his (willing) attack dog. I should have known: in his inaugural address of 20 January 1953, Eisenhower presented a Manichaean world view, talking about how "Freedom is pitted against slavery, lightness against the dark." This was not mere rhetoric, as it turns out; it was Ike who led the country into a secret global conflict, says Kinzer. In 1955 he created a Special Group to authorize covert operations such as coups and assassinations, and all its actions were taken on his behalf, while he posed for the public as an affable "Daddy" figure. He was the first American president to authorize the assassination of a foreign leader (Patrice Lumumba, 1960), and did the same thing (unsuccessfully) with Fidel Castro. President Johnson, a few years later, remarked (privately) that the CIA had apparently been running "a goddamn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean"; but the CIA could not have waged these wars without Ike's approval. Turns out, he was the most hysterical and simplistic of them all.

Why, asks Kinzer at the conclusion of The Brothers, did the Dulleses do what they did? The truth is that they did not emerge ex nihilo, and neither did Eisenhower. As the comedian George Carlin was wont to say, our leaders don't drop in on us from Mars. There is a deep cultural context here that goes back centuries. "They did it because they are us," writes Kinzer. He goes on (italics mine):

"If they were shortsighted, open to violence, and blind to the subtle realities of the world, it was because those qualities help define American foreign policy and the United States itself....The Dulles brothers personified ideals and traits that many Americans shared during the 1950s, and still share [today]. They did not colonize America's mind or hijack United States foreign policy.On the contrary, they embodied that national ethos. What they wanted, Americans wanted....[In all of this] the Dulles brothers were one with their fellow Americans. Their attitudes were rooted in the American character. They were pure products of the United States."

Many Americans believed, like the Dulleses, that our cause was so transcendent that it justified any extreme. Senator J. William Fulbright said that Foster fed the Americans "pap." But Americans devoured this pap, they loved it. "It fit with how they saw their own lives and history," says Kinzer. Foster plucked the chords of our wars: wars against the Indians, cowboy narratives, marine landings, and notions of Manifest Destiny. The idea that we must win everything, that we cannot just let some things be, is central to the idea of America in general. It was hardly born with the Dulleses. "Lashing out against real or imagined enemies, as they did, is typically American. Quietly watching history unfold is not." And Americans find it difficult to imagine how others see us, or even to care. The Dulleses "exemplified this national egoism. Empathy was beyond their emotional range." They could only simplify the world, never see its rich diversity. "In this, too," Kinzer adds, "they were quintessentially American." He concludes that what they wanted to do was project power--which was the same impulse that crushed the Indians, stole land from Mexico, and drew the US into a whole string of global wars. Americans believe we have vital interests everywhere, and so they elect leaders who believe the same thing. The fundamental assumptions that guide foreign policy today have not changed substantially since the fifties. In a word, Americans wish to ignore reality; they have a childlike belief that bad things are done by bad people (others), so the solution is to eliminate the bad people. Basically, they are fools, and remain so to this day. Changing this mindset would thus require something on the order of a mass lobotomy. "Americans never learn," quipped Gore Vidal; "it's part of our charm."

At the end of the popular TV series The Americans, Soviet agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), their cover blown, flee the US and return to Russia. In the final scene, they gaze out at the Moscow skyline, apparently wondering what their time in America finally amounted to. All that mayhem, all that murder and wanton destruction of so many lives, and for what? For some abstract system that made it impossible for people to live lives of their own? It's a moving scene, but I couldn't help thinking how such a revelation was unlikely to occur to Americans, with their own abstract system of beliefs. If it ever does occur, it is quite brief: Jimmy Carter's declaration, for example, that we needed to stop blaming the Soviet Union for all of our problems, quickly replaced by "Evil Empire" Ronnie--in what amounted to the greatest landslide in electoral history. We are not into Jennings'-style soul-searching; in truth, we don't appear to have much of a soul at all.

There is very little that could get us to see through our addictive "need" for war, the imperial framework of our modus vivendi, or the illusion of our entire way of life. The continuity between the mindset of the fifties with Vietnam, Chile, Reagan in Central America, Iraq, and now the demented misadventures of Trump, ought to be obvious, but such connecting of the dots is way beyond the intellectual capacity of most Americans, who live on pap, as Sen. Fulbright correctly observed. A nation of goofballs, when you get right down to it, regardless of their IQs. Meanwhile, the tiny number of dissenters from such mindsets, such blind, abstract systems--folks like George Kennan, E.M. Forster, J. William Fulbright, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Miller, Ai Weiwei, Talleyrand ("Above all, no zeal") et al.--those who reject formula and frenzy as a way of life--is minuscule. But I believe there is a name we can call them by: Wafers, wry observers of societies gone berserk. It may be a long shot, but ultimately they are our only hope.

(c)Morris Berman, 2019

May 15, 2019

4 Million

Ahoy there, Waferinos!

This blog was launched in April of 2006. 13 years and one month later, it still survives, pulling in about 45,000 hits a month. The total hits for the 13 years is now nearing 4 million. It survives as a rare oasis of reality in a nation wallowing in utter and total bullshit. We have stayed the course, insisting on "truth in advertising," while providing book revs and film recs, and above all, humor in troubled times. We have crushed the trollfoons, held Wafer Summit Meetings, survived brief periods of absence (with the help of Haldol etc.), and demonstrated the Ultimate Fact: There just isn't any other blog worth bothering with. All but one of our predictions have proven to be correct, the exception being the election of Trumpola; and never were we more delighted to be wrong. So onward, I say, onward to the next 4 million. As I approach my 75th birthday (August), I realize I will probably live to 101, at which time we will proudly display a history of 10 million hits. God looked down on all the blogs in the blogosphere, saw the Waferblog, and said: "This, this is the blog I'll put my money on." No fool, He.