There is a marvelous saying by whom I do not know. It pertains to blind eyed fanatics for whom the truth is incidental. They come in all shapes, religions, in every epoch and in every country where patriotism is suborned by nationalism. The classic true believer is Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor, a dunce so obtuse that he had no hint that he has long fled the authentic companionship of Jesus. The saying goes,and I paraphrase, “I’d rather face 10,000 fanatics on horseback than one Presbyterian who is convinced he’s right.” With ecumenical apologies to Presbyterians who of course have no monopoly on grim certitude, I present to you John Foster Dulles (b.1888).
Dulles was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State from 1953-1958.This was a period of intense flux in the world—the breaking of colonial empires and the deep freeze of the Cold War. It was also a time of tremendous religious conformity. Dulles grandfather had been a Presbyterian missionary in India and his father a pastor in Waterdown, New York. He came to his deep religiosity as a matter of habit-three services on Sunday and several others during the week.His father had him memorize biblical passages and he was well on his way to the ministry, following in his father’s footsteps,until he hit Princeton University.It was there that he discovered that he might indeed be granted a bigger pulpit in the service of his country and humanity. He then set his eyes on the job of Secretary of State. This bully pulpit was to be his when his friend New York governor Thomas Dewey was set to become president in 1948. After Truman’s stunning upset, Dulles had to wait until Eisenhower’s victory in 1952 to assume the job.
By then 65 years of age,Dulles indeed had imbibed the toxic American brew which has haunted the United States since its inception. It is called American exceptionalism, the idea that somehow America has been destined to be “the shining city on a hill”, an absolutely unique nation, endowed with unquestioned virtue, in the words of novelist Herman Melville, ”the Israel of our times.” This is an idea so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it is virtually unassailable and self evident. 9/11 hit Americans like a shattering explosion. “Why do they hate us?” was the cry of incomprehension. There was no collective understanding that so many nations did not share Americans high opinions of themselves, and their undisputed global altruism.
The staggering hubris of the incurious George W Bush that Americans had the right to wage war irrespective of domestic criticism or universal condemnation is a classic example of this exceptionalism. “We are trying to lead the world,” was W’s lame excuse. And like many of his presidential predecessors from McKinley to Clinton, it was always for the good of the world—never about markets and doing the bidding of corporations. Yet it was not always like this. George Washington, the great hero of their own colonial war against Great Britain, had warned his own people not to export what was beyond their own interest. Washington was a Deist not a hard core Christian like Dulles and as we have discovered, there is no motivation which drives people like that of religion, the idea that the Creator has willed it so and you are but His obedient servant.
Dulles, as noted had been raised in a strict Presbyterian household on his father’s side but on his mother’s side he grew up mid extraordinary affluence and privilege, spending much time with his maternal grandfather Foster who had been Secretary of State in the Harrison administration. Foster also was on many powerful boards and included among his clients and friends the Carnegies and Bernard Baruch.
Dulles became a lawyer then a partner in Sullivan and Cromwell, a firm that dutifully served the most powerful corporations in America and the biggest cartels which supported the rise of Hitler.In 1954, now Secretary of State, Dulles engineered the coup which destroyed democracy in Guatemala.For him it was simple.He had been on the board oft he United Fruit Company whose unused lands the popular president Arbenz wished to nationalize. Guatemala’s effrontery clashed with Dulles’ twin principles: a hatred of Communism and loyal service to corporations. The problem was (and this would consistently hobble the US, Guatemala was not communist.) The Cold War had radically skewed American perceptions of the nascent reformist nationalism sweeping the world.
John Foster Dulles was a political and moral disaster, one of the mid-century architects of imperial America. Universally described as cold, aloof, calculating and absolutely sure of himself. he was betrayed by the suffocating narrowness of his patrician history, and his sheltered and privileged life. All of this was tragically overlayed by his misplaced arrogant piety, the staggering conviction the God of peace and justice had somehow blessed him in his Macchiavellian endeavours. Unwittingly he caused untold havoc to both his country and the global community. One of his biographers, Leonard Mosley said that Dulles’s brother Allan (who headed the CIA) and sister Eleanor, “sensed in their brother a chilling capacity to be completely dispassionate, to reduce even the most anguishing problem to a question of expediency.” This hardly describes the authentic religious sensibility.
Dulles had absolutely no interest or respect for the countries he was subverting (Iran was another, as was Vietnam). This narrow minded Christian was absolutely convinced of his own righteousness which coincided naturally with America’s exceptional mission as God’s surrogate . Humility did not appear to be his long suit. in this way he helped pave the way to the present American disaster in Iraq, one which the late Arkansas senator William Fullbright would have called, “the arrogance of empire.”