- Historic Sites
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
Well, when he graduated, his grandfather, of course, wanted him to get a job so he brought him up to New York to Sullivan & Cromwell. And his grandfather knew Mr. Cromwell, and they had a meeting in Mr. Cromwell’s office. And General Foster said, “Now, here is my grandson, just graduated from law school, so perhaps you could find a place for him.” And Mile. Reynard [Cromwell’s secretary] said that Mr. Cromwell was so interested in the way Mr. Dulles behaved. This young man never raised his eyes from the floor. He was very shy, you know, at having his grandfather ask for a job rather than … getting it for himself.
Even in these years there were signs of an interest in international affairs. When his grandfather was named as one of the American delegates to the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907, young Dulles accompanied him as his secretary. In 1913, when he was just beginning at Sullivan & Cromwell, Uncle Lansing tempted him with a chance to do some legal work for the State Department in Washington. In 1917-18, after America had gone to war and Dulles had temporarily left Wall Street for an Army commission, there were a few Lansing-inspired minor diplomatic missions to Central America. But Foster Dulles’ first significant involvement with American foreign policy came in 1919 when he was a member of the American delegation in Paris to help Wilson write the Versailles Treaty.
Dulles worked on the issue of German reparations—how much Germany was to pay the victors for war damages—and, to his sorrow, lost many of the battles to keep the figures from being so high as to impede Germany’s recovery. He was not alienated by the completed treaty. Throughout the twenties he continued to regard himself as a Wilsonian and moderate internationalist. But he was increasingly disturbed by the way in which the reparations question was handled.
Eustace Seligman, his law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell since prewar days, described the evolution of Dulles’ attitude:
Dulles felt that the Versailles reparation burden on Germany was an impossible burden and would dislocate the economies of all the European countries. … Then, in 1939, he published a book in which he pointed out, without ever justifying any of their aggressions, that Germany, Italy, and Japan had been restricted in their economic and political development byFrench and British policies… and he advocated a recognition of the legitimacy of the demands of these countries—for which he was somewhat criticized.
All of this created a certain ambivalence in Dulles’ attitude toward the rise of Adolf Hitler, as a letter he wrote to the editor of the Forum in 1937 indicates:
I am in receipt of your letter of September 20, with reference to Professor [Emil] Ludwig’s article on Hitler.
One may disagree, as I do, with many of Hitler’s policies and methods. But such disagreement should not lead one into the error, as I conceive it, of disparaging his abilities. One who from humble beginnings, and despite the handicap of alien nationality, has attained the unquestioned leadership of a great nation cannot (as Ludwig maintains) have been “utterly lacking in talent, energy, and ideas.” Professor Ludwig asserts that because Hitler’s policies are blindly stupid, they are more apt than those of Mussolini to lead to war. This is a highly speculative prediction. … Admittedly Hitler’s methods involve primarily an appeal to the emotions and the use of the arts of propaganda. Emotionalism is dangerous, whether in a people, a dictator, or an historian. But the user of emotional methods is not necessarily himself a mental incompetent.
As he became more involved in the arena of international finance, Dulles was a frequent speaker at business gatherings and at such organizations as the newly established Council on Foreign Relations. He was an internationalist by the standards of the ig2o’s; that is, he shared the view of many members of the Wall Street community with transatlantic financial interests, who felt that the United States, as the world’s leading creditor nation, had a role to play in the world scene.
But in the late 1930’s, as war shadows lengthened, Dulles became increasingly disillusioned about the state of international affairs. Believing, like a good Wilsonian, in the need for peaceful change, he insisted that another European conflict was threatening because no nation was prepared to live up to the implications of Article 19 of the Versailles Treaty, which had called for the revision of treaties that had become outmoded. He was wary of American involvement in such a struggle. When Charles A. Lindbergh began to emerge as the outspoken champion of isolationism, Dulles wrote him in guarded but sympathetic terms:
I am very glad you spoke as you did. I do not agree with everything that you said, but I do agree with the result, and I feel that there is grave danger that, under the influence of emotion, we will decide upon a national policy which is quite the reverse of what we had more or less agreed upon when we were thinking clearly.