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By Ken Trainor
Former New York Times foreign correspondent and international relations professor Stephen Kinzer was an Oak Park resident for nearly a decade before his career took him to Boston a few years back. He has written numerous books on this country's role in foreign interventions. His latest, The Brothers, focuses on John Foster and Allen Dulles and their "secret world war" during the 1950s, which led to several CIA-sponsored coups.
Kinzer will be speaking in Oak Park on Friday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m., as part of the ongoing Writers at Wright series at Unity Temple. We asked him for a preview and a few memories about his time here.
What sparked your interest in the Dulles brothers?
I have been crossing paths with these extraordinary brothers for much of my career. Years ago I published Bitter Fruit, a book about the CIA's overthrow of the democratic government of Guatemala in 1954; that operation was conceived, planned and executed by the Dulles brothers. Later I wrote All the Shah's Men, about another Dulles operation, the overthrow of democracy in Iran. Visiting those two countries, I could see the terrible effects of these operations.
I have also been interested in other operations the Dulles brothers directed, in places from Vietnam to the Congo. Yet no book about either brother has been published in this century. In their time, they wielded earth-shattering power, but today they are largely forgotten. I wanted to understand who they were, what forces shaped them, and why they were so eager to depose incipient democracies and replace them with tyrannies, in the name of the people of the United States. That is the genesis of my new book, The Brothers.
How far have we come since the Dulles brothers? Has the way the U.S. behaves in the world improved at all during the Obama administration?
The Dulles brothers believed the United States had vital interests in every part of the world. Every time there was any kind of change or crisis or upheaval in the world, they felt the need to respond. This remains a powerful instinct. Americans like to believe that we know what's good for the world. We imagine that what we want is best for everyone, and when people in other countries resist our intervention, we consider them enemies of freedom or worse. Like the Dulles brothers, we often look at the world not as a situation to be understood, but a problem to be solved.
Events of recent weeks give some hope that this perspective may finally be changing. When large numbers of Americans resisted the idea of bombing Syria, they were suggesting that they no longer believe military power can make the world more peaceful. This is the first time since the Dulles era that many Americans have opposed launching a war. Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with urgent needs at home, may be making Americans suspicious of foreign intervention. If that is actually happening, it means that we are now, finally, seeing the end of the Dulles era.
Do your books figure into the classes you teach?
I am now a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. This semester I am teaching a seminar called "History of American Intervention." Teaching a course like this without focusing on the Dulles brothers would be impossible.
Nonetheless I am reluctant to assign my own books in class. I like to think there are enough customers out there so I don't have to pad the sales figures.
What do you miss about Oak Park?
Marianne and I lived in Oak Park for almost 10 years. She had several art shows there, and our daughter graduated from OPRF High School. Naturally we have many memories, and still feel connected to Oak Park.
I enjoyed the feel of Oak Park, which is not urban but not typically suburban either. It's such a pleasure to walk the streets and see the richness of architecture and parks.
Donuts at the Farmers Market, enjoyed while listening to wonderful roots music, remain a vivid memory. That gave me the strength to sit down at my desk and write a few more pages.
Tickets for Stephen Kinzer's appearance at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., this Friday at 7 p.m. are $10. The admission price can be redeemed for $10 off the price of the book at the event.