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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
Much the same thing happened with respect to the equally famous “brinkmanship” article that appeared in Life magazine in January of 1956 and that rounded out the impression of Dulles as a man who was sufficiently bellicose to atomize large portions of the globe on less-than-massive provocation. The article, “Three Times to the Brink,” was based on a tape recording that Dulles made with three journalists who worked for various Luce publications. On the actual tape Dulles had been trying to explain why, in his opinion, a nation confronted with a grave crisis and dealing with a remorseless enemy could not, in advance, afford to indicate that it would yield to pressure. To do so, Dulles argued, might tempt the enemy to press too far, to assume that the nation lacked will, and therefore, to miscalculate—thereby actually increasing the prospect of war. But in taping his remarks the Secretary had used such phrases as “the ability to get to the verge of war without getting into war as the necessary art,” had talked about not being “scared to go to the brink,” and had described President Eisenhower as “coming up taut” on several crucial decisions. No journalist could resist the potential in such copy, and Life further compounded the problem by tightening the piece, inserting provocative subheads, and adding the title “Three Times to the Brink” on the cover. James Shepley, who wrote the article on the basis of the Dulles tape, admitted:
We had committed the sin of oversensationalizing what he had said at that point. … Because of the way we headlined and covered the thing, it was readily subject to the misinterpretation that … he appeared to be bragging about taking the country to the brink of war.
Henry Luce, publisher of Life and long an admirer of Dulles, said:
Shepley’s mistake was putting something in quotation marks which should not have been put in quotation marks. … He should have … given the sense of the thing—and the sense of the thing was that in very tense world affairs, there are times when you have to be willing to go to the brink of war. You can’t carry out your policy without any risk of war whatever. … But Dulles had put this a little dramatically in saying, “going to the brink.”
Two men—Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower—admired Dulles almost beyond all others. To Nixon the great strength of the Secretary was his firmness and, above all, his willingness to pursue a policy that he felt was correct even though unpopular:
So, let me put it this way: some political leaders in the decisionmaking process would put their finger in the air and say, What do people want? Dulles never believed in decision-making by Gallup Poll. … He said, “After all, you don’t take a Gallup Poll to find out what you ought to do in Nepal. Most people don’t know where Nepal is, let alone most Congressmen and Senators. But what you do is to determine what policy should be, and then if there’s a controversy and if there’s need for public understanding, you educate the public.”
Richard Nixon also felt a personal debt to Dulles for the assistance that the Secretary gave him in 1955, when President Eisenhower suffered his heart attack and the young Vice President was thrust into a position of both national leadership and vulnerability. On this occasion the wheel came full circle. Dulles, the nephew of Robert Lansing, could draw on family experience in the matter of Presidential disability and had strong views about what had gone wrong when Woodrow Wilson was struck down in 1919. In Nixon’s words:
Basically, there had to be, at that time, some one on whom I could rely … Dulles was one—he was the first. Dulles was the one who, because of the accident that he had been through it before with his uncle, advised me and guided me. [He] was my major adviser as to what I should do and the role that I should play. And he .was also the one that urged Sherman Adams to go out to Denver so that we would not have the Wilson experience of just Mrs. Eisenhower and a press secretary out there. … He also urged that Cabinet meetings be held, and that the National Security Council meetings be held, and that the-President write me a note—in fact, I would say that Dulles was really the general above all at that point. Others contributed to what we ought to do, but we never did anything in that period without checking it with Dulles.
The man whom Dwight Eisenhower remembered was the man of moral principle:
Not only were our relations very close and cordial, but on top of that I always regarded him as an assistant and an associate with whom I could talk things out very easily, digging in all their various facets and tangents—and then, when a final decision was made, I could count on him to execute them. … On top of that, the man was possessed of a very strong faith in moral law. And, because of that, he was constantly seeking what was right, and what conformed to the principles of human behavior as we’d like to believe them and see them. …