Who caused the Cold War? In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy downplayed the role of human agency in shaping events, writing that “a king is history’s slave,” and ever since Thucydides chronicled the Peloponnesian War, historians have recognized how the international system constrains choices in a bipolar world. But just because world-historical forces made some type of cold war highly likely does not mean that one was inevitable. Nor does it mean that individual decision-makers bear no responsibility for the depth or nature of the conflict that did occur.
Indeed, some choices that U.S. presidents made during the Cold War had huge impacts on history. Had President Dwight Eisenhower accepted the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use tactical nuclear weapons against China during the 1954 crisis over the Taiwan Strait, there would have been no 70-year nuclear taboo. And had President John F. Kennedy, whose measured handling of the Cuban missile crisis averted nuclear war in 1962, been replaced by the more impulsive Lyndon Johnson that year instead of the next, then the episode might have turned out disastrously (as the Vietnam War did).
What about presidential advisers? How much did they matter? During the early Cold War, two pairs of brothers played critical roles in shaping U.S. foreign policy: the Dulleses and the Bundys. John Foster Dulles (who went by Foster) was appointed Eisenhower’s secretary of state in 1953, and his younger brother, Allen, became director of the CIA that same year, staying on until 1961, when Kennedy fired him after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Despite their personality differences -- Foster was a priggish lawyer, whereas Allen was a womanizing spymaster -- they held essentially identical ideologies. McGeorge “Mac” Bundy served as national security adviser under Kennedy and for the first two years of Johnson’s presidency, and his older brother Bill held high-level positions in the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Compared with the Dulles brothers, the Bundy brothers were younger, more liberal, more open to dissenting ideas, and better husbands and fathers.
These four men form the subject of two joint biographies: The Brothers, about the Dulleses, by Stephen Kinzer, and The Color of Truth, about the Bundys, by Kai Bird. As the books make clear, all four were quintessential WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and card-carrying members of the so-called eastern establishment. The Bundys attended Groton and Yale. Their great-grandfather had been a congressman from upstate New York, and their father married a Boston Brahman and served as an assistant secretary of state in the Hoover administration. The Dulles brothers boasted an equally elite pedigree: graduates of Princeton, they were grandsons of John Foster, a lawyer who served as secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison, and nephews of Robert Lansing, who also served as secretary of state, under President Woodrow Wilson.
Taken together, the two biographies make clear that the Dulles and the Bundy brothers saw the world though an ideological lens that made communist allies look more tightly aligned than they really were, made the prospect of Soviet gains look more frightening than it should have been, and thus made U.S. military and covert interventions look more necessary than they truly were. Less clear, however, is whether those faults can be attributed to the WASP establishment backgrounds of these advisers rather than the broader forces of American politics.
THE LAST HURRAH
“Never before had siblings directed the overt and covert sides of American foreign policy,” Kinzer says of the Dulles brothers, who often came together for a drink at the end of the working day. “There would be no reason for State Department and CIA officers to meet and thrash out the possible advantages and disadvantages of a proposed operation,” Kinzer writes. “With a glance, a nod, and a few words, without consulting anyone other than the president, the brothers could mobilize the full power of the United States anywhere in the world.” And when ambassadors or bureaucrats obstructed their schemes, the Dulles brothers arranged to have them removed.
Eisenhower was determined to avoid a major hot war with the Soviet Union, and he relied on the Dulles brothers to carry out covert action as a substitute for military engagement. Some of the resulting schemes, such as the overthrow of the governments of Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953 and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, succeeded in the short run but hurt U.S. foreign policy in the long run. But Kinzer also provides a long list of covert operations that failed even in real time: in Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Indonesia, Tibet, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Cuba.
The Bundy brothers also engaged in unsuccessful covert interventions -- most notably, Operation Mongoose, the plan, authorized in 1961, to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, and the 1963 coup that ousted Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime in South Vietnam. Unlike the Dulles brothers, the two Bundys occupied different levels in the government hierarchy (Bill Bundy’s highest posting was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs), and although they socialized and exchanged ideas, they worked less closely together.
Bird’s biography holds the Bundy brothers partly accountable for the debacle in Vietnam. Both had private misgivings about the war but decided to persevere anyway. In Bird’s view, Mac Bundy “was no ideologue in the mold of John Foster Dulles. He was a realist who should not have been blinded by talk of ‘international prestige.’ But he just could not face the prospect of ‘surrender on the installment plan.’” And so he supported Johnson’s increase in U.S. troop numbers, while Bill, at lower levels, participated in the planning for an expanded war.
Although the Bundy brothers were somewhat more sympathetic to Third World nationalism than were the Dulles brothers, they failed to conclude that a communist Vietnam would not be subservient to a communist China (which was itself resisting subservience to a communist Soviet Union). Had they understood that the geopolitical game in East Asia was balance-of-power checkers, rather than ideological dominoes, many lives and much treasure could have been saved -- and Vietnam would still look similar to the way it does today.
As the 1960s progressed, the war that the Bundy brothers promoted inside government became increasingly unpopular outside it, and when they came back to Boston on visits, they eventually found themselves the targets of student demonstrations. They were not alone. When John McCloy, who was sometimes called “the chairman of the establishment,” served on a Harvard committee in 1970, I watched protesting students break into a meeting and pour cold water on him.
The country was changing in another way during these years, as well: its foreign policy elite was getting more diverse. The two national security advisers who followed Mac Bundy -- Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger -- were, respectively, from a family of recent Jewish immigrants and a Jewish immigrant himself. In the words of the historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Mac Bundy represented “the last hurrah of the Northeast Establishment.”
The Dulles and the Bundy brothers were WASPs, but such a category has little correlation with particular foreign policy views. Eisenhower and Johnson were both technically WASPs but pursued very different Vietnam policies. The non-WASP Rostow was a leading hawk on Vietnam. And John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (who were far closer and more powerful siblings than the Dulleses and the Bundys) are sometimes considered honorary WASPs (despite their Irish Catholic background) thanks to their prep school and Harvard backgrounds, yet President Kennedy’s approach to Vietnam bore little resemblance to Johnson’s. As Bird puts it, the gamble on Vietnam “was not a requirement of the Cold War.” He adds, “Many of Mac Bundy’s own deputies were also Cold War liberals, yet they did not think it was necessary to draw the line in Vietnam.”
Somewhat more useful than the category of WASP is the concept of an eastern foreign policy establishment. Many of its constituents socialized together, bound by school ties and membership in elite organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations. Bird recounts the story of how Bill Bundy, suffering in the aftermath of Vietnam, was offered the editorship of Foreign Affairs by David Rockefeller during a Harvard-Yale football game. (To his credit, he opened its pages to critics of the war.)
This establishment had its blind spots. Because of their travel and personal ties, its members tended to focus on Europe to the exclusion of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Both the Dulles and the Bundy brothers tended to view Asia through Eurocentric lenses and misapplied analogies such as Munich in 1938; they never really understood Third World nationalism. As Kinzer says of the Dulles brothers, they “may have believed that the countries in which they intervened would quickly become stable, prosperous and free. More often, the opposite happened.”
Loyalty was considered an important virtue, and it may have limited policy criticisms that could have led to course corrections. As Bird notes, “everything about Mac’s life -- his Brahman upbringing, his Groton/Peabody education, his Skull and Bones comradeship, his military service as a signals intelligence officer and his tenure as Harvard dean -- had taught him to value loyalty and to devalue the man who voiced his dissent in public.” Bird calls the brothers’ refusal to resign or publicly raise problems with the war “their worst and most personal mistake.”
And yet, although a coherent American elite helped create some major Cold War policies, the significance of this elite and the relevance of its common background can easily be exaggerated. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had to wrestle with Congress, public opinion, and influences far broader than the eastern establishment. Consider how much power was wielded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Catholic from rural Wisconsin. His demagogic warnings about the communist threat stoked fear in the hearts of presidents, helping convince Kennedy to move forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and Johnson to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Moreover, for all its flaws, the United States is a vibrant democracy in which elections matter, and so elected presidents and legislators matter most. As historians later discovered, the contemporaneous view that Foster Dulles controlled U.S. foreign policy while Eisenhower smiled and played golf was wildly inaccurate. In fact, Eisenhower, a master of leading from behind, was always in firm control. For instance, after Dulles removed the celebrated Foreign Service officer George Kennan from the State Department in 1953, Eisenhower tapped Kennan to chair a component of Project Solarium, an exercise that recommended the more moderate version of containment that Eisenhower ended up adopting in place of the more aggressive approach, favored by Dulles, of toppling Soviet client governments. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis put it, Kennan was used “to liberate Eisenhower from the ‘liberation’ strategy to which Dulles had tried to commit him.”
The power of Johnson’s advisers also had its limits. When Johnson came into office, he kept on Kennedy’s foreign policy team, but the master politician from Texas never grew fully comfortable with the people he called “the Harvards.” After Mac Bundy and Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara became ambivalent about the Vietnam War and tried to moderate Johnson’s policies, they lost influence. Bundy left to head the Ford Foundation, and Johnson replaced him not with any of the people he had recommended but with Rostow, whose hawkish views dovetailed with Johnson’s political concerns about losing Vietnam. Although Johnson often consulted elder statesmen, he used them more as window-dressing than to make decisions.
THE POWERS THAT BE
However much influence the Dulleses and the Bundys, and the eastern establishment more generally, might have had, it was eclipsed even during this period by the power of an anxious general public. Fear, Kinzer quotes the scholar Christina Klein as saying, “served as the emotional glue that held this world together: fear of Soviet expansionism, of communist subversion at home, of nuclear war."
Objectively, this fear had little basis. The United States emerged from World War II with unprecedented power: nuclear superiority, nearly half of the world’s economic output, and strategic alliances with Europe and Japan. The Soviet Union, by contrast, was left devastated. But despite American power, the U.S. public did not feel comfortable. The Soviets pressed to consolidate their gains and disguise their deeper weakness. They gained a communist ally in China, developed a nuclear weapon, consolidated control of Eastern Europe, made inroads in the postcolonial Third World, and launched the Sputnik satellite.
To make matters worse, U.S. politicians misinterpreted and manipulated Soviet moves for domestic political advantage. During the Eisenhower era, the Democrats claimed to have discovered a “missile gap” -- later shown to be nonexistent -- which they used to portray the Republicans as weak and which later drove Kennedy to overinvest in missiles for domestic political reasons even after he had learned the truth. Moreover, discussion of the Soviet Union was dominated by analogies to Nazi Germany, even though Soviet expansionism, opportunistic and relatively risk averse, was of a different kind.
Could Washington have done more to bargain with the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953? Could it have lived with leftist regimes in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and Vietnam? Could it have capitalized on the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s instead of a decade later? No one will ever know, not only because the Dulles and the Bundy brothers recommended against these alternative choices but because broader public opinion made them politically impossible. Whatever the influence of the two sets of brothers and the eastern establishment, the political leaders were in control. And they listened more to public opinion and broader elites than to the eastern establishment.
Even if the Cold War foreign policy establishment was not intellectually monolithic or all-powerful, however, the country would surely have benefited had that establishment been more diverse and truly open to talent of all kinds. For example, Foster and Allen Dulles had a sister, Eleanor, who many considered to have had the best mind in the family. In 1942, she joined the State Department as an economic officer. “This place is a real man’s world,” she later wrote. “It’s riddled with prejudices. If you are a woman in Government service you just have to work 10 times as hard.” And indeed, Eleanor’s career was curtailed by her gender. She was already working on the State Department’s Berlin desk when Foster became secretary of state. Rather than help her, he tried to dismiss her for fear of appearing nepotistic; loyalty seemed to be limited to the brothers. “Had attitudes toward women been different during her lifetime, she might have risen to outshine them both,” Kinzer writes. Those who regret the demise of the eastern foreign policy elite should remember not only the mistakes it made but also the talent it excluded.
In recent years, of course, the top positions in the U.S. foreign policy establishment have been held by people from a wider range of backgrounds. As a matter of talent and justice, that is an important improvement. But since the United States’ Cold War policies were a product more of popular politics than the views of the establishment brothers, the fact of a newly meritocratic decision-making elite may have little effect on policy. Whatever the beliefs the brothers brought to their offices, at the root of their views lay the idea of American exceptionalism. As Kinzer writes of the Dulleses:
Their determination to project power was the same impulse that pushed settlers across prairies and over mountains, wrested rich territories from Mexico, crushed Native American resistance, and drew the United States into wars from Central America to Siberia. It remains potent. As long as Americans believe that their country has vital interests everywhere on earth, they will be led by people who believe the same.
Kinzer is right to blame failures of U.S. policy on American exceptionialism, but Washington can invoke that belief in two very different ways: to exert imperial control over other societies or to rely on the power of the United States’ attraction as a city on a hill. Both forms were on display in Congo in 1960, for example. At the same time as the great American musician Louis Armstrong was being celebrated on the streets of Léopoldville like a visiting monarch, behind the scenes, the CIA was planning to assassinate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and colluding with his rival Joseph Mobutu, who subsequently pillaged the country for decades. What is America’s mission, and how should it be implemented? Those questions will probably remain long after the Dulles and the Bundy brothers are forgotten and some future historian writes a book called The Sisters.