Which Way America? Dulles Always Knew

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The emotional reaction that Dulles feared was a commitment to defend democracy that might be impossible to fulfill. In the spring of 1940, he wrote to a friend advocating American assistance to Britain and France:

So far as Europe is concerned, I do not think there is anything we can do, or that any one can do, that will prevent the present war from impoverishing the nations of Europe and creating social and economic conditions such that a regime of personal and individual liberty, such as we aspire to, will be impracticable. This will, I fear, be true no matter who “wins.”

And his concluding paragraph scarcely suggests the later Secretary of State who would be accused of being an “immobilist” frozen into fixed positions:

If the defeat of England and France can only be prevented by the United States assuming the role of the guarantor of the status quo in Europe and Asia, then, indeed, we would have assumed a heavy responsibility. For, as I have said elsewhere, change is the one thing that cannot be permanently prevented, and the effort to perpetuate that which has become artificial will inevitably break the person or the nation committed thereto.

Yet in these same years, Foster Dulles, the son of a minister, began to find answers to pessimism in the peace efforts of American Protestantism. The year 1937 was crucial in his intellectual development. First, he attended an international conference on problems of war and peace that was held in Paris and sponsored by the League of Nations; then he crossed the Channel and attended a similar church-sponsored conference at Oxford. His son Avery recalled the contrast between the way his father responded to the two conferences:

In the summer of 1937, when he was in Paris … he had this great conference with many of the leading thinkers on financial and political matters in various countries. … But [he] … was rather dissatisfied with the results, because he felt that the people attending were not able to rise above their immediate national self-interest and prejudices. And then, right after it, he attended a conference of the Life and Work Group—which was one of these groups that later joined in the World Council of Churches—at Oxford on “Church, Community, and State.” And he said that the atmosphere was so completely different when all these men were gathered together under Christian principles to discuss many of the same problems. He found that people of different nationalities were able to reach agreements transcending their short-term national self-interest and prejudices and see things in a much larger perspective. I think the contrast of these two conferences on world affairs in the summer of 1937 convinced him that Christianity was of tremendous importance for the solution of world problems of peace and international justice.

After 1937 Dulles plunged heavily into the work of the churches in world affairs, soon becoming a regular speaker at church-sponsored conferences and meetings on the problems of war and peace. His papers at Princeton contain an admiring note from his mother written about this time:

… just a few lines to tell you how much I appreciate what you are doing in the cause of Peace and Religion. I remember that after graduation [from college] when you told me that you were going into the law and not into the ministry, that you said that you thought you could do as much good in that field, and you are proving it, for your reputation gives weight to all you say.

Early in 1940, after the war had started in Europe, Dulles accepted the chairmanship of a major church sponsored study group— the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace—established by the Federal Council of Churches. As head of that group Dulles became the lay spokesman for American Protestantism on the subject of war aims. Dulles and the commission insisted on the need to create a new international organization to replace the old League of Nations and, above all, hoped to establish a new international system that would create the possibility of peaceful change.

The churches, still smarting under charges that their outlook in the 1930’s had been dominated by pacifism, found in Dulles a lay leader of conservative instincts and a Republican lawyer with impeccable credentials. He worked closely with some of the most liberal leaders of American Protestantism—men such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Coleman Bennett—and, according to all accounts, was successful in the role. Bennett, later the president of Union Theological Seminary, recalled:

I should want to emphasize the fact that he was really the creative leader … the leader, indeed, of this effort for about a decade. He was, in dealing with these people, open, and he listened. … He always did his homework, he always had drafts, he always knew the line he wanted to take—a line having to do with the period after the war. … He was certainly opposed to a peace based primarily on a vindictive attitude—very open to the German people. And also, I thought, he was open toward the revolutionary part of the world to a considerable extent.