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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
Well, I went shamefacedly to Dulles. He got a great kick out of it. “Just think what my Presbyterian friends would have said, if they heard me saying that to the country at large.”
Yet those who saw only the stern face of the Secretary on TV or who knew him only for his incantations about the evils of communism were unaware that the Secretary was also a man with a sense of humor and kindness. Behind the preaching of the brinkman there was warmth of personality.
Thomas Gates, Undersecretary of the Navy, remembered the first time he and his wife attended an official Washington dinner party at which the Secretary of State was present. Mrs. Gates, apprehensive that she would be seated next to the austere Dulles, found that he was indeed her dinner partner:
And she sat down, and Dulles started to pull the candle grease off the candles and eat it. … And my wife said, “Now, Mr. Dulles.” He said, “I know it’s awful, it’s a terrible habit, but I just love to chew candle grease. I’ve done it all my life.” My wife said, “Well, you shouldn’t do it. I’ve scolded my children all their lives, and it messes up the tablecloth.” And he laughed, and they got along swimmingly.
Well, my wife went out and bought two boxes of those bee’s honey candles that are made out in San Diego in some missionary place and sent them up to his camp in the Thousand Islands. And she got back a letter which she thinks is the greatest letter she’s ever had. It said, “Dear Mrs. Gates: The candles arrived. They look good, they light good, and they chew good.”
One Saturday the Secretary was about to depart on one of his frequent trips abroad. He and Douglas MacArthur H spent most of the day working on papers they would have to take with them. Around midafternoon Dulles announced that he was going home and would meet MacArthur at the airport at nine in the evening. “And I want you to go home, too,” he told MacArthur, “and see something of your family before we’re off tonight. And that’s an order.” MacArthur promised to quit in a few more minutes, though, knowing how much work still remained to be done, he had no intention of leaving. He kept on sorting papers. About 6:30 the phone rang:
I was feeling tired, and when the phone rang, I said, “Yeah, who’s this?”
And this voice replied, “This is Dulles. You better go home, boy. Your home front is crumbling … I mean it. You go home right away.”
So, I immediately hung up the phone and called my wife. I said, “I’ll be home in about an hour to pick up my clothes. But I just got this strange phone call froai the Secretary. Do you know what it’s all about?” And I repeated what he said to me.
My wife said, “Yes, I do know what it’s all about. About fifteen minutes ago, the telephone rang, and a voice said, T want to speak to Mr. MacArthur.’ ”
And she said, “Who’s calling please?” And this voice replied, “Secretary Dulles.”
My wife, thinking it was one of the Secretary’s minions, said in a rather hard voice, “Well, you go back and tell the Secretary that Douglas MacArthur is where he is every Saturday, every Sunday, every night. He’s down in that damned State Department.”
The voice replied with a chuckle, “I will give that message to the Secretary.” Of course it was the Secretary himself.
Two phrases—“brinkmanship” and “massive retaliation”—will long be irrevocably associated with John Foster Dulles. Both were controversial and, as shorthand, capsule statements of complex policies, helped to create the image of Dulles as the dogmatist who revelled in the confrontation between East and West. Ernest Gross was present when the “massive retaliation” speech was given before the Council on Foreign Relations on January 12, 1954, and remembered the negative impact it made on him and many other council members:
A group of council members went to the hotel bar afterwards. And really we all expressed a sense of shock and consternation at that speech. A group of really knowledgeable people gathered afterwards, and we all shook our heads and were really worried.
In this speech, as in many others, Dulles was his own worst enemy. He sincerely desired to communicate his ideas to the American public and thereby secure broad acceptance of administration policies. But to command attention he often used dramatic, abbreviated phrases—and failed to realize that these could be counterproductive. Robert Bowie, twice member of the Policy Planning Staff, noted the ironies emerging from the massive-retaliation speech:
I am quite certain that Dulles’ concepts … assumed the capacity for more limited force. In private discussion he would always express the view that there must be an opportunity for a flexible use of force, and not simply one choice. … But in speaking he was so anxious to get things clear and simple and forceful and to have them get attention, that he gave the picture of a mind that had all … the qualities of simplification in black and white.