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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
The purpose of the piece that follows is to illuminate some of the many facets of John Foster Dulles that have been noted in this brief introduction—above all, to suggest that he was far more complicated than the popular stereotype. It is based entirely upon two sources: first, his correspondence for the years 1919-1952, now on deposit in the Firestone Library of Princeton University; and second, transcripts of the Dulles Oral History Project, in the same library. The Oral History Project, directed by Philip Growl, then of the Department of State and now chairman of the History Department at the University of Nebraska, taped the recollections of over three hundred persons who had known and worked with Dulles—Cabinet members, churchmen, colleagues in Wall Street and in the State Department, officers of the military services. They reveal aspects of the man not to be found in any letters or published sources. One cautionary note is in order. “Oral history” is not documented history; it rests on the fragile memories of men who, long after the fact, were asked to put their recollections on tape. The men cited in this article told it as they remembered it, not necessarily as it actually was.
John Foster Dulles was reared in Watertown, New York, where his father was pastor of the local Presbyterian church. Many years later his sister, Mrs. Margaret Edwards, recalled what it was like to grow up in a small town parsonage on the shores of Lake Ontario and what kind of boy her older brother had been:
He was an adventurous little boy. He wasn’t foolhardy—never was— all his life. But he loved to climb the highest apple tree out in the back yard, and I would climb up after him as fast as I could. And when we shot off firecrackers on the Fourth of July, I just hated the noise, but I never let him know.
Our Sundays were quite strict, but they were happy days. In fact, I think we looked forward to Sundays. And every Sunday morning, as our family grew up, we five children, led by my mother, walked sedately up the church aisle and took our places next to the front pew. And each of us was equipped—this was my father’s idea—with pencil and notebook. We were to take notes on the sermon. Of course, for the younger ones, my two little brothers, this didn’t amount to very much. But for my brother Foster, and myself, and my brother Alien, it was a very serious undertaking. We felt that we were reporters on our father’s sermon. And then at Sunday dinner our notes were brought forth, and we discussed the sermon. … My father would always say that if our notes were not clear, then he must have preached a very poor sermon. He always took the blame himself. So that made us very eager—because we loved our father—to make our notes as accurate as possible.
The family’s intellectual horizons, however, were never limited to the view from the parsonage. Their father was, by the standards of nineteenth-century theology, a liberal; and he set broad educational goals for all the children—“being a world citizen, learning foreign languages, getting to know people face to face.” To Mrs. Edwards, “all of those things that came out when Foster was Secretary of State … were all started by my father.” Then, too, every year the Dulles children spent time in Washington visiting their grandfather, John W. Foster, no longer Secretary of State but still quite active in international affairs:
The Washington houses … were always centers of international personages, so that we kind of took that for granted. The Mexican ambassador lived next door, and the Chinese ambassador lived not far away … and they came and went from our house. My grandparents “received” every Monday, and, of course, social life and protocol was very detailed, and one made no mistakes … [Foster and I] would glue our faces to the windowpane to see these equipages roll up with their coachmen and their footmen, and then somebody would get out all dressed in regalia … so that I suppose it was in our blood when we were quite young.
It was a close-knit family, the children always in competition with one another but ever united against any outsider. Throughout their lives both Foster and Alien Dulles were resolute defenders of the family reputation. In the 1930’s, for example, they edited the memoirs of their uncle, Robert Lansing and, in the opinion of the publisher, eliminated interesting but possibly unflattering material about Lansing’s work with Woodrow Wilson. Ina letter to his brother, Alien conceded having cut a section that “rather tended to indicate that Robert Lansing had been on the sidelines in connection with the preparation of the 14 Points message.”
From Watertown High School, Foster Dullcs went to Princeton, where he graduated in 1908. (The Princeton record is obscure. Young Dulles was apparently a brilliant but shy and unsocial person; in later years few of his classmates could recollect much more than the fact that he had been with them at Princeton.) After college there was a year at the Sorbonne, with language study and philosophy courses under Henri Bergson, and then law school at George Washington University—so that he could be close to his grandfather. In 1913 Dulles joined the prestigious Wall Street law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. There is more than a suspicion that it took the assistance of Grandfather Foster to land him his first job. As an old friend of the family later remembered: