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Which Way America? Dulles Always Knew

April 2024
32min read

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

About a dozen years ago Carol Burnett’s nightclub repertoire included a number, “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles.” In 1971, in an era of massive discontent with American foreign policy, Miss Burnett would be unwise to restore it to her program. For even though the song is pure camp, some youthful member of her audience would certainly jump to his feet with a denunciation of Dulles as the archetypal villain of the foreign-policy establishment he repudiates. To the new generation Foster Dulles stands condemned as thevery model of the Modern Cold Warrior. To them he is the moralist whose platitudes reduced the world situation to a struggle between Western “good” and Communist “evil” and the brinkman who stood poised on the edge of Armageddon and revelled in the confrontation. His veto of United States assistance in the building of Egypt’s Aswan Darn, the indictment further runs, alienated Gamal Abdel Nasser and began the fatal series of steps that led to a massive Soviet influence in the Middle East, against which we are now contending. At the real brink, some of his other critics assert, he frustrated the Anglo-French-Israeli armed intervention at Suez, without providing any countermeasure to preserve the Western position in that area. Finally, it is charged, his efforts to maintain staunch anti-Communist leadership in power in Saigon after 1954 make the Vietnam war in good part his legacy.

John Foster Dulles dominated American foreign policy during the more than six years that he was Secretary of State, and was always a controversial figure. In his speeches, especially those that were televised, he presented the image of a one-dimensional man, the stern Presbyterian whose stock in trade was an unbending stance against “atheistic communism” (and, as anyone who heard his speeches will recall, the adjective was as important as the noun). One Washington correspondent privately referred to the Secretary as “a card-carrying Christian.” Even before his untimely death in 1959 there were more than a few critics who argued that his militant anticommunism blinded him to changes in the Soviet world and condemned American diplomacy to a global rigidity. Yet to his many dedicated admirers, and especially to President Eisenhower, he was a man of principle and conscience, a Secretary of State who would never settle for a policy of expediency. Those who worked with him in the Cabinet or National Security Council were impressed with his almost total knowledge of all the facts in a given situation, his ability to present the relevant evidence, and his talent, as a lawyer, to write a brief resting upon seemingly irrefutable logic.


John Foster Dulles was, paradoxically, everything that both his critics and his admirers claimed. But he was, most emphatically, not simply one-dimensional; his personality had many and varied facets. A wide variety of experiences shaped the outlook and perspectives of this complex man. His involvement in American foreign policy was, in many respects, the working out of a family drama. His grandfather (to whom he was particularly close) was John W. Foster, Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison; his uncle, Robert Lansing, served Woodrow Wilson in the same capacity. Thus through family associations he gained an early exposure to the world of diplomacy and the workings of American foreign policy. He was also deeply affected by certain personal, firsthand experiences with the conduct of United States foreign policy from 1919 onward. Yet, despite his unique qualities and background, Dulles was a “typical” American in his response to the international issues that faced his country. The movement of his ideas was not far removed from the main currents of public opinion, except perhaps in the 1920’s when he was more of an “internationalist” than all but a few of the surviving WiIsonians. Certainly in 1919 he was caught up in the general enthusiasm for the Wilsonian program, and, on the eve of World War H, he had no desire to see America involved. But once we were in it, he was again caught by the enthusiasm for internationalism and, like F.D.R., was hopeful that there could be postwar cooperation with the Soviet Union. Like most Americans, his suspicions of the Russians came largely after Yalta; they were founded on the disillusionment that arose when the wartime hopes were destroyed. Indeed, in the immediate postwar period, more than a few militant anti-Communists charged Dulles with not recognizing sufficiently the menace of the Soviets.

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:


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.

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.

In the 1950’s, when Dulles had become the alleged brinkman and advocate of massive retaliation, many church leaders looked back in some confusion. Was this the same Dulles with whom they had worked so closely during the war years? Former associates became critics, and there was strain in old relationships. In 1958 Dulles was asked to give a major speech at the annual meeting of the National Council of Churches in Cleveland. In it he insisted that the United States could not and should not give diplomatic recognition to Red China. He had scarcely returned to Washington when the five hundred delegates, by a wide margin, endorsed a resolution that called for U.N. recognition of the Red Chinese. Ernest Gross, a friend of the Secretary and a church delegate at Cleveland, recalled:

It [the vote] was strong and bitter medicine to Mr. Dulles, because word came back almost at once to us that he really felt it a personal blow and a repudiation.

But these discords were still in the future in the immediate postwar period, when Dulles clearly emerged into national prominence as an authority on American foreign policy. In both the 1944 and 1948 election campaigns he was Thomas E. Dewey’s principal consultant on foreign affairs. Indeed, in 1948, on that historic occasion when Dewey (the Republican candidate) “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” it was widely assumed that Dulles would be the next Secretary of State. All of this caused no little embarrassment. At the time of the election Dulles was in Paris attending a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, and as the Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, recalled the circumstances:

At that time, in the early part of November and late October, everybody in Paris who talked to Dulles assumed that he was talking to the prospective Secretary of State, and all sorts of dinner parties and meetings were held on this assumption, which nobody questioned at the time. Dulles himself was inviting delegates and groups of delegates to have dinner, during which he would lay down future lines of policy. It fell to me to be invited on November 4, the day after the election, and the occasion had all the melancholy of a funeral …


Dulles’ stature was enhanced by his position as delegate at several U.N. General Assembly meetings. He became both an official and unofficial Republican adviser to the Department of State. He was asked to negotiate and carry through the Japanese Peace Treaty. The important aspect of the years from 1948 to 1952, however, was the change in his views toward the Soviet Union and his emergence as one of the architects of the postwar bipartisan foreign policy of containment and resistance. Dulles was relatively slow to emerge as a militant antiCommunist; throughout the late 1940’s he continued to express fears about the global spread of American commitments, worried about the fragmentation of the United Nations, and on occasion doubted whether the East-West split was irrevocable. On the very eve of Truman’s enunciation of the Truman Doctrine, Dulles wrote Joseph Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune :

I read with great interest your piece in today’s “Tribune.” I am in general agreement with it except that I do not feel that the Soviet ideological challenge “would prove embarrassing and costly to us even if it never produced a war.” My personal feeling is that, if the Soviet challenge does not produce a war, and I think it will not, it may prove to be a useful and invigorating thing. I do not know whether you are familiar with Toynbee’s story of History and his study of the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of “challenge and response.” Without periodic challenge it seems that civilizations decline and pass away.

In 1952 Dulles emerged as Eisenhower’s choice for Secretary of State. The two men, however, scarcely knew each other until the spring of that year, when a carefully planned meeting was arranged in Paris so that they could sound each other out and determine if they could work together. It had always been assumed by those who knew Dulles that, consciously or unconsciously, he had always sought the position of Secretary of State. Yet when the first overtures came from Dwight Eisenhower’s camp, Dulles had hesitations. His long-time partner, Eustace Seligman, remembered what happened when Lucius Clay, who handled the arrangements, first called:

I remember I went up to Foster’s room and asked if he could go over to Paris the next week and told him what it was about. Foster got another of our partners, Arthur Dean, and the three of us discussed it. And this is something that people I’ve told it to don’t believe. Foster said, “I don’t think I really want to become Secretary of State.” And the reason was, he didn’t want the administrative detail. He didn’t want the political business of having to go up to the Hill to persuade people. He said, “The job I would like to have would be head of the planning group—to plan foreign policy and not to have to worry about these other unimportant things.”

Dulles, quite obviously, resolved his doubts, realizing that he would not have the necessary authority or control without the actual position as Secretary of State. To be sure, he never really “ran” the State Department in any full managerial sense; he administered, as Robert Murphy, a career diplomat who had worked with Eisenhower since the North African invasion in 1942, put it, “sporadically.” Moreover, though he and the President eventually established a close and personal relationship, at the outset of the new administration there were those who thought the two men were incompatible and who wondered if Dulles would survive as Secretary for even a year. Emmet John Hughes, journalist and speechwriter for the administration, insisted that in the early days of the Eisenhower-Dulles association the President was “just plain bored” by his new appointee:

It was so emphatic and obvious a boredom that I found it embarrassing, even though I was not terribly sympathetic to Foster Dulles … I recall, too, that after some of these rather long conferences broke up, during which the President-elect would just stare up at the ceiling as if in a trance every time Foster Dulles talked, C. D. Jackson and I would remark on this, and we both had identical reactions to the phenomenon. We both reached the conclusion, that would seem to be inescapable, that this was a human relationship that could not endure.

In later years the Eisenhower temper flashed when he was questioned about the accuracy of Hughes’s observations: “That’s a complete distortion of fact. Matter of fact, the man [Hughes] knew nothing about it. How did he know what my reactions were? Matter of fact, I admired Dulles from the very beginning …” But others also noted the roughness in the early relationship of President and Secretary. Robert Murphy was forcibly struck by the difference between the way Dulles and Walter B. Smith, the new Undersecretary of State, approached the President (General Smith had been Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff at SHAEF during the war):

He’d [Smith] call up on the phone … or the President would call him, and he’d say, “Ike, I think you ought to do this” or “I think that’s a hell of a thing. Don’t do that.” … Then I’d go from Smith’s office, maybe, to Dulles’ office, and Dulles would be on the phone to the President, and he’d be all deference and politeness, and “Mr. President,” and there was no informality there.

Like many of the newcomers Dulles apparently feared that many officiais of the State Department had been corrupted and brainwashed by twenty years of service to Democratic administrations. In his first talk to members of the department he called for a new regime of “positive loyalty,” and, as Douglas MacArthur n recalled the incident, thereby alienated many with whom he would have to work:

He addressed the Foreign Service and the State Department shortly after he took over, and he presented his remarks in a way which was interpreted by many … to have cast some doubt on their loyalty to the government. It was one of those things where the Secretary did not have a text, and I think he could have said what he had to say and put it in a different way …

A strained atmosphere was also created by the feeling of many in the State Department that Dulles was willing to tolerate right-wing attacks on alleged “subversives” in their ranks and to appease the congressional followers of Communist-hunting Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. “There was quite a bit of feeling in the Foreign Service,” Theodore Achilles noted, “that he was not standing up strongly in the defense of some people, including Chip Bohlen, who was the most prominent case at that time and who was under attack by McCarthy.” The recollections of Edward Corsi, New York State commissioner of labor, were bitter. Corsi, a liberal Republican, was invited to take on a State Department assignment handling refugee problems, but he had scarcely arrived in Washington before he came under intense attack from the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged Communist sympathies. As the furor mounted, suggestions were made to Corsi that the best way out was for him to resign his post in Washington and, in its place, accept “a roving ambassadorship in Latin America.” Corsi flatly rejected this “solution” and sought a personal meeting with Dulles:


Finally, I couldn’t take it. I had to have a showdown with John Foster Dulles himself. … My house was filled with reporters and people trying to create this into a huge national scandal of some kind. … I had to get a clearance from the Secretary one way or the other.

I went there at four o’clock. Of course downstairs was just packed up with dozens of photographers. … I ducked them and got into the Secretary’s office. … He sat there. He looked like a beaten man. It seemed that the tragedy was more his than mine. And he said, “You know, Ed, we have to depend on Congress for our appropriations.”

“Very true, Mr. Secretary,” I said. “What is the meaning of this? Do you want me to leave?”

“No,” he said, “no, Ed, why don’t you accept [the ambassadorship]?” I said, “Because I’m not interested in that offer.”

Then he went off into a spiel about what these same elements had done to him on the Hiss case. And he said, “Don’t you know that I went through this kind of thing with all these people? You can’t pacify these people; there’s no reasoning with [them]. They’ve got the cards in their hands. They can stop our appropriations. They can do a great many things.” And so on.

I realized, the more I talked, the more I was dealing with a man who was determined to put an end to this thing, and the way to put an end to it was to run away from it.

These incidents, to be sure, occurred early in the new administration, at a time when things often go wrong for Washington newcomers. With the passage of time many of these problems were solved, sorted out, or simply shelved. With the fall of Senator McCarthy the attack on the State Department waned, and departmental morale improved. Dulles himself gained increased respect for the Foreign Service. His relationship with the President firmed; indeed, it became exceptionally close. Emmet Hughes, returning to the White House in 1956, found a harmony he had never expected. President Eisenhower later recalled that “there were so many telephone calls with Dulles, that you just didn’t attempt to keep track of the number. I’d just reach for the phone myself and call, and he’d do the same thing. … We’d be in close touch all the time. I suppose some days eight or ten times … I’d call him, or he’d drop in, or send somebody over, just for a few moments about something. … But always—I suppose there was no one I kept in as close touch with as I did with Foster.”

All of this was to the occasional annoyance of Sherman Adams, the granite Cerberus from New Hampshire, whose task it was to guard access to Dwight Eisenhower. Adams was devoted to keeping the President’s schedule “orderly,” a chore made all the more difficult because, in his words, Eisenhower was “a friendly man who would have welcomed all”:

Dulles was the only member of the Cabinet who took literally Ike’s invitation to come in any time and, when not occupied, simply to walk in. Dulles would walk in here, ask Shanley, Stevens, etc. if the President was busy, and, if not, Dulles just opened the door and walked in.

Once, Adams barred Gerard Smith, Dulles’ adviser on nuclear matters and disarmament, from a White House meeting despite Smith’s insistence that Dulles had sent him over as his personal representative. Said Smith:

… I went back and reported the thing … to Foster. And then he said, ”You know, Gerry, Adams talks to me that way sometimes.” And then he added, “But not verv often.”

Dulles soon established himself, in both the Cabinet and National Security Council, as one of the most influential and respected members of the administration. His reputation was based upon his mastery of facts and detail, his total command of every aspect of a problem under discussion, his ability to marshal evidence and mount his case. The laconic Sherman Adams was eloquent on the point:

There were occasions, when, at the Cabinet table, Mr. Dulles really took his hair down. … Although he would not show impatience toward some remark which Mr. [Ezra] Benson or some other member of the Cabinet would make, he nevertheless occasionally gave the Cabinet a—well, I thought they were grand lectures. He would start with the various elements that made up a situation with which we were faced, to look at the alternatives, and so unmistakenly bring the Cabinet to a conclusion that he really took Mr. Humphrey and some of the others into camp.

What impressed General Matthew Ridgway, himself no stranger to professional briefings, about Dulles’ presentations in the National Security Council was his “ability to take the whole complex international situation and, in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes … brief the NSC without a note before him, in a most lucid manner, with beautiful continuity. It was a really marvelous display of intellect and memory and grasp of the whole situation.”

It was quite simple to Dwight Eisenhower:

I admired the man from the very beginning for two reasons. One, his obvious sincerity and dedication to the problems that were put before him, and secondly, the orderliness of his mind. He had a little habit before he started to speak—probably in his youth, he may have had a little bit of stammering—he waited, sometimes it would be three or four seconds, before he’d start to talk. But when he did, it was almost like a printed page.

There was also a certain ineffable quality about Dulles that made him both the spokesman for and symbol of the foreign policies of the Eisenhower administration. It was his successor, Christian Herter, the gentle man from Massachusetts, who most clearly sensed this quality:

The major differences between ourselves was my own feeling that the President was the constitutional officer responsible for foreign affairs. Whether he made the policy, or didn’t make the policy, he still ought to be out in front in connection with it. I didn’t want it to be known as a Herter policy; I’d much rather have it an Eisenhower policy … [pause] … I think Foster rather liked it being a Dulles policy.

Whether it was a strength or a weakness, the “lawyer’s mind” of Dulles can readily be detected in many of his policies. SEATO, for example, was deliberately designed to meet a series of constitutional, political, and legal problems far more than it was intended to be simply a military alliance on the NATO model. Richard Bissell, deputy director of the CIA , insisted that it was a lawyer’s and not a soldier’s concept. Recalling the occasion when Dulles first discussed the idea for SEATO , Bissell emphasized that the Secretary had placed great stress upon the factors that had prevented American intervention in Indochina when the French position collapsed in 1954 and also had made it clear that he did not expect the nations of Southeast Asia to provide any appreciable military power or political stability to the proposed treaty:

Dulles made a great deal of the fact that the circumstances which had tied our hands at the time of Dien Bien Phu and [prevented] a possible direct military intervention, were in part the lack of a position in international law which would justify an intervention and in part a domestic constitutional problem. … Dulles argued at the meeting … that an appropriate regional treaty in Southeast Asia would have, in effect, made possible the overcoming of these legal obstacles to military intervention in the area should we ever be faced with a situation in which that might be necessary. In the first place, as a treaty it would have been debated in the Congress and ratified by the Senate. Therefore, in its domestic aspect, this would be a legislative action with a legislative history that would clearly augment Presidential powers to react quickly. …

Internationally the point was more obvious that if a government in the area required our assistance, the treaty would provide a recognized … legal basis for rendering such assistance.

But if colleagues saw the lawyer dominant, many also saw the Presbyterian moralist rampant. He was, to them, the churchman in politics whose religious rejection of “atheistic communism” made him identify the Soviets and their allies with the forces of evil. Roscoe Drummond, the New York Herald Tribune ’s man in Washington, noted the prevailing view among the press corps that “Dulles wrapped his temporal views in theological clothes in a way that made him seem smug and moralistic.” Even his friends noted the same quality. To James Hagerty, the President’s press secretary:

Dulles was a tough old boy. … He was a Roundhead, a Puritan, and I’m quite sure that in the Cromwell era his ancestors were chopping down the Cavaliers in the name of their religious beliefs.

Christian Herter made the same point, but in different language:

I think that you have to give some allowance to the fact that Foster was essentially a very religious person, and 1 think that the very thought of communism, and the ungodliness of communism … was something he felt very deeply inside.

A senior American diplomat, the late George V. Alien, long remembered an evening when he was a guest in the Dulles home. During the after-dinner conversation, Alien made a few unflattering comments about the democratic leadership provided by Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kaishek. Dulles leaned forward in his chair, and, as Alien recalled it, his eyes were blinking:

Well, I’ll tell you this. No matter what you say about them, these t wo gentlemen are modern-day equivalents of the founders of the church. They are Christian gentlemen who have suffered for their faith. They have been steadfast and have upheld the faith …

At meeting in the State Department, someone once made a Biblical reference. The Secretary waved his finger and, as Robert Murphy recalled, said, “I want it understood that I know more about the Bible than anybody else in this Department.” Gérard Smith had a firsthand experience with that knowledge. He was on a transatlantic flight with Dulles and working on a speech that the Secretary was to deliver concerning the state of NATO. Unwisely, as it turned out, Smith decided to include a Biblical quotation, “When a strong man is armed, his castle is in peace”:

I handed Dulles the manuscript, and he called me to the back of the plane and said, “Where did you get this quote?” And I told him, and he said, “Well, is there a Bible aboard?” And I dug into the reference books and found a Bible, and pointed out the passage. He looked and looked at it.

Finally, the next day he called me in and said—he knew that I was a Roman Catholic—“What do your theologians say is the meaning of that passage? … My sense of it is that this is a reference to Satan.”

So I called up someone learned in the New Testament and recited it to him—“When a strong man is armed, his castle is in peace.” I said, “Who does this refer to?” He replied, “Why, Satan, of course. … Look at the next line, for it says, ‘But when a stronger man comes, he overcomes him’—and that’s the reference to Christ.”

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.

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. …

And it was a tremendously serious blow to me when that second operation showed that Foster was filled up with cancer. I not only liked the man—and I just hated to think of going on without his brain—but it’s one of those things fate brings along and you have to learn to live with it.

Wiley Buchanan, chief of protocol in the State Department, handled the funeral arrangements when John Foster Dulles died in the spring of 1959:

The first time I was in the President’s office after the funeral, I started out the door, and he said, “Wiley, come back here for a minute.” I went over by the window, looking out at the lawn of the White House—out of his oval office. And he said, “I just wanted to thank you and your people for arranging the funeral. It couldn’t have been better, and I was well pleased with it.” Then he lowered his eyes, and, actually, tears filled them, and he said, “It’s a great loss.”


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