What are the main themes of the book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer?

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One of the main themes that Stephen Kinzer’s 2013 book, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, addresses is human agency and the role of powerful and driven individuals (and their world vision) in impacting and shaping world events and history. In this book, the powerful individuals in question are John Foster Dulles (former Secretary of State) and his brother, Allen Dulles (former director of the Central Intelligence Agency).

In the short introduction to his book, Kinzer notes that,“These uniquely powerful brothers set in motion many of the processes that shape today’s world.” Throughout the book, he elaborates on how their actions while in positions of power, particularly their interventions in sovereign foreign nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, were informed by their particular worldview and may have ultimately been well intentioned but mostly resulted in the lengthy upheaval, destabilization, and impoverishment of these nations. He notes that “Some of the countries they targeted have never recovered. Nor has the world.”

The aforementioned quote also speaks to another important theme, our collective historical memory. Kinzer claims that many of us have forgotten the Dulles brothers and their impact, to the detriment of our understanding of world history and current events. In other words, in order to understand the past few decades as well as our current situation, we have to study the Dulles brothers and their actions as “obscured roots.” Particularly, Kinzer claims that the Dulles brothers have shaped our understanding of the United States and its role in the world. They have impacted how we behave as citizens and how we expect our government to behave and should therefore be studied. As he notes, “The story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America. It illuminates and helps explain the modern history of the United States and the world.”

For further reading, I would recommend the book itself, especially the brief introduction. You may also find NPR’s interview with the author interesting.

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Kinzer's book is a biography of the brothers John Foster Dulles, who was Secretary of State from 1953-1959, and Allen Dulles, head of the CIA from 1953 to 1961. As Kinzer writes, "These uniquely powerful brothers set in motion many of the processes that shape today's world" (page 3). The theme of this book is that studying these brothers helps us understand the causes of wars and conflicts in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. 

Another of the themes of the book is the examination of the ideas that motivated the Dulles brothers in the actions they took during the Cold War. Kinzer defines these ideas as "American exceptionalism," the idea that the U.S. can act in ways other countries can't because America is more virtuous. Another belief the brothers ascribed to was the idea that America is more powerful than other countries and therefore can decide to overthrow these governments. They also believed that the U.S. had to promote Christianity and capitalism abroad. 

Another theme is that the brothers' tale is also, as Kinzer writes, "the story of America" (page 3). They operated against a backdrop of fear and paranoia during the Cold War. As Kinzer writes, "the nation was gripped by a fear that Soviet Communism was winning victories around the world while the United States was standing still or losing" (page 87). The CIA that Allen Dulles led was formed against this backdrop, and the CIA became "an advocate of covert operations" (page 103) in countries such as Guatemala and Iran. These types of operations would form part of the core of what Allen Dulles supported. He and his brother believed in fighting the specter of communism wherever it appeared, and this hysteria motivated a lot of the actions the CIA took at the time. These beliefs, carried out by the Dulles brothers, led the U.S. into the conflict in Vietnam (page 179), as well into other conflicts. 

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