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Which Way America? Dulles Always Knew
The job ran in the family; both his uncle and grandfather were Secretaries of State. Home life in a parsonage taught him piety, and the law precision. The rigid views of a world divided between good and evil he worked out, apparently, himself. Private letters and new taped recollections help explain the shaping of the man who set our Cold War foreign policy
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
About a dozen years ago Carol Burnett’s nightclub repertoire included a number, “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles.” In 1971, in an era of massive discontent with American foreign policy, Miss Burnett would be unwise to restore it to her program. For even though the song is pure camp, some youthful member of her audience would certainly jump to his feet with a denunciation of Dulles as the archetypal villain of the foreign-policy establishment he repudiates. To the new generation Foster Dulles stands condemned as thevery model of the Modern Cold Warrior. To them he is the moralist whose platitudes reduced the world situation to a struggle between Western “good” and Communist “evil” and the brinkman who stood poised on the edge of Armageddon and revelled in the confrontation. His veto of United States assistance in the building of Egypt’s Aswan Darn, the indictment further runs, alienated Gamal Abdel Nasser and began the fatal series of steps that led to a massive Soviet influence in the Middle East, against which we are now contending. At the real brink, some of his other critics assert, he frustrated the Anglo-French-Israeli armed intervention at Suez, without providing any countermeasure to preserve the Western position in that area. Finally, it is charged, his efforts to maintain staunch anti-Communist leadership in power in Saigon after 1954 make the Vietnam war in good part his legacy.
John Foster Dulles dominated American foreign policy during the more than six years that he was Secretary of State, and was always a controversial figure. In his speeches, especially those that were televised, he presented the image of a one-dimensional man, the stern Presbyterian whose stock in trade was an unbending stance against “atheistic communism” (and, as anyone who heard his speeches will recall, the adjective was as important as the noun). One Washington correspondent privately referred to the Secretary as “a card-carrying Christian.” Even before his untimely death in 1959 there were more than a few critics who argued that his militant anticommunism blinded him to changes in the Soviet world and condemned American diplomacy to a global rigidity. Yet to his many dedicated admirers, and especially to President Eisenhower, he was a man of principle and conscience, a Secretary of State who would never settle for a policy of expediency. Those who worked with him in the Cabinet or National Security Council were impressed with his almost total knowledge of all the facts in a given situation, his ability to present the relevant evidence, and his talent, as a lawyer, to write a brief resting upon seemingly irrefutable logic.
John Foster Dulles was, paradoxically, everything that both his critics and his admirers claimed. But he was, most emphatically, not simply one-dimensional; his personality had many and varied facets. A wide variety of experiences shaped the outlook and perspectives of this complex man. His involvement in American foreign policy was, in many respects, the working out of a family drama. His grandfather (to whom he was particularly close) was John W. Foster, Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison; his uncle, Robert Lansing, served Woodrow Wilson in the same capacity. Thus through family associations he gained an early exposure to the world of diplomacy and the workings of American foreign policy. He was also deeply affected by certain personal, firsthand experiences with the conduct of United States foreign policy from 1919 onward. Yet, despite his unique qualities and background, Dulles was a “typical” American in his response to the international issues that faced his country. The movement of his ideas was not far removed from the main currents of public opinion, except perhaps in the 1920’s when he was more of an “internationalist” than all but a few of the surviving WiIsonians. Certainly in 1919 he was caught up in the general enthusiasm for the Wilsonian program, and, on the eve of World War H, he had no desire to see America involved. But once we were in it, he was again caught by the enthusiasm for internationalism and, like F.D.R., was hopeful that there could be postwar cooperation with the Soviet Union. Like most Americans, his suspicions of the Russians came largely after Yalta; they were founded on the disillusionment that arose when the wartime hopes were destroyed. Indeed, in the immediate postwar period, more than a few militant anti-Communists charged Dulles with not recognizing sufficiently the menace of the Soviets.