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Posted on Nov 29, 2013
By Gordon Goldstein
The first test came in Iran, where nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister in 1951 and swiftly moved to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, seizing control of the country’s petroleum wealth from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a primarily British enterprise. Operation Ajax, designed to oust Mossadegh, initially floundered. But the CIA paid street mobs to terrorize Tehran and recruited dissident military units that converged on Mossadegh’s home on Aug. 19, 1953. After a battle that killed hundreds, the Mossadegh government was overthrown. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed, “ruled with increasing repression for a quarter century, and then was overthrown in a revolution that brought fanatically anti-Western clerics to power.”
The CIA next, in 1954, deposed Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, a former defense minister and leftist political reformer who expropriated nearly 400,000 acres of land owned by the powerful United Fruit Company. Arbenz represented a potent threat comparable to Mossadegh and his seizure of Iran’s oil assets. “Their crackdown on corporate power led Foster and Allen to presume that they were serving Soviet ends,” Kinzer writes. “Two reasons for striking them—defending corporate power and resisting Communism—blended into one.”
These early victories in covert action were followed by a series of failed or unnecessary interventions that the author attributes to the brothers’ hubris and incompetence. In Vietnam, the communist and nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh proved to be as resilient and relentless an adversary as the United States ever confronted. In Indonesia, the American effort to unseat neutralist President Sukarno constituted one of the largest covert operations of the 1950s but also ended in failure.
In the African nation of Congo, a charismatic former postal clerk named Patrice Lumumba became leader after the end of Belgian colonial rule. The CIA perceived him as sympathetic to Moscow and in 1960 helped the Congolese military depose him. Lumumba was then abducted, beaten and murdered by his political rivals and Belgian police. Only 200 days separated his inauguration and his death.
The Bay of Pigs operation remains among the greatest debacles in CIA history, an epic mess for which Allen Dulles was eventually fired. By the time 1,400 American-sponsored Cuban exiles blundered ashore in April 1961 in an effort to spark a spontaneous revolution, their mission had already been exposed. Months before, a New York Times headline had blared: “U.S. Helps Train an Anti-Castro Force at Secret Guatemalan Air-Ground Base.”
Allen had a pattern of delegating operational responsibilities to a dangerous degree, in this instance entrusting the fate of the invasion to his deputy, Richard Bissell. Both men were mired in abject denial about the operation’s prospects. A Marine Corps amphibious-war expert advised them that the United States would “be courting disaster” if it did not neutralize Cuban air and naval assets by providing “adequate tactical air support.” Yet Allen and Bissell knew that a newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy had ruled out any intervention by U.S. forces, the precise condition upon which the invasion’s success depended.
Allen Dulles’ “mind was undisciplined,” Kinzer concludes. “A senior British agent who worked with him for years recalled being ‘seldom able to penetrate beyond his laugh, or to conduct any serious professional conversation with him for more than a few sentences.’” Kinzer is similarly blunt in his assessment of Foster’s intellect, quoting Winston Churchill’s disparaging verdict that the secretary of state was “dull, unimaginative, uncomprehending.”
The author asserts that the Dulles brothers suffered from a form of sibling groupthink. “Their worldviews and operational codes were identical,” Kinzer writes. “Deeply intimate since childhood, they turned the State Department and the CIA into a reverberating echo chamber for their shared certainties.”
Gordon Goldstein is the author of “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.”
©2013, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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