John Foster Dulles

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Date: 1980
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,301 words
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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About this Person
Born: February 25, 1888 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Died: May 24, 1959 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Statesman
Other Names: Dulles, John F.
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Dulles, John Foster (Feb. 25, 1888 - May 24, 1959), lawyer and diplomat, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of the Reverend Allen Macy Dulles, a Presbyterian minister, and Elizabeth Foster. He was named after his maternal grandfather, John Watson Foster, who had served as secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison, and his paternal grandfather, John Welsh Dulles, a prominent missionary. Diplomatic and missionary influences came to Dulles from both sides of the family; he could count among his relatives a minister to Great Britain, John Welsh, and another secretary of state, his uncle Robert Lansing.

Dulles spent his childhood in Watertown, N.Y., and attended public schools, except for a six months' stay in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he concentrated on learning French and German. He entered Princeton University in 1904. During his junior year he accompanied his grandfather, John Foster, to the Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907. Foster represented the Chinese government at that conference, and Dulles, a nineteen-year-old undergraduate, became secretary to the Chinese delegation.

This experience caused Dulles to think about a career other than the ministry, his original professional intention. After graduating from Princeton in 1908, and following a year of study at the Sorbonne in Paris, he studied law at George Washington University. He passed the bar examination in 1911 without completing the formal requirements for a degree, and entered the New York firm of Sullivan and Cromwell as a clerk, at fifty dollars a month. On June 26, 1912, Dulles, who was able to draw upon a $20,000 inheritance, married Janet Pomeroy Avery. They had three children. Dulles' legal career flourished as he became expert in the problems of international law, a field of increasing value to Sullivan and Cromwell. The firm was counsel to a number of foreign clients as well as to several American companies with overseas holdings.

It was on a trip to British Guiana for one of these latter clients that Dulles contracted malaria. Heavy quinine dosages saved his life, but damaged his optic nerve, impairing his vision slightly and leaving him with a noticeable tic in his left eye. As he grew older, this contributed to his generally dour countenance, even when he was in the best of spirits.

As American entrance into World War I neared in early 1917, Dulles received a special assignment in Central America from President Woodrow Wilson. His mission was to make sure that the governments of Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua would fall in line for defense of the Panama Canal by declaring war on Germany when Congress did. Dulles was thus successfully launched on a career of public service that would eventually lead to his stewardship of the nation's affairs as secretary of state.

Barred from combat service because of his weak eyesight, Dulles received a direct commission in the army and was ordered to Washington for duty on the War Trade Board. By the end of the war he had been promoted from captain to major and was highly regarded by some of Wilson's closest advisers. On their recommendation he was appointed as counsel to the reparations section of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace (1919). In that capacity he argued the American case for a reparations policy based on a reasonable estimate of Germany's ability to pay. At Wilson's request he remained in Europe, long after the heads of state had departed, to handle matters connected with the problem of reparations from Germany's wartime partners, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey.

Proximity to the Allied statesmen did not improve Dulles' estimate of their ability to construct a lasting peace. Like Secretary of State Lansing, and his brother Allen Dulles, now also beginning a career in foreign relations, he returned from Versailles disillusioned by the failure of the peace commission to achieve a world made safe for democracy.

Unlike Lansing, who doubted the basic Wilsonian premise that a League of Nations could ensure peace, Dulles feared the inability of European democracy to meet the challenges of dissatisfied powers. He felt that the Treaty of Versailles would only increase these dangers. But from a personal point of view, Versailles was a great success for Dulles. Advanced to a partnership in Sullivan and Cromwell at the age of thirty-one, he brought the firm new clients from among the powerful acquaintances he had made while on the peace commission.

Over the next several years Dulles represented or advised several foreign financial and industrial interests, including service as special counsel to the bankers who drew up the Dawes Plan of 1924 for stabilizing German finances. He had few illusions, however, about the ultimate success of any plan that, without setting a final figure that Germany would have to pay, relied upon American loans to enable the German government to pay British and French claims. In 1927, the year he became the senior partner in Sullivan and Cromwell, Dulles represented the Polish government in negotiations to stabilize that country's finances.

The Great Depression all but destroyed these efforts to restructure the financial system of Europe. At several Berlin conferences in the early 1930's, Dulles represented American clients who were trying to salvage something from the wreckage of the Dawes loans and other investments in Germany. His association with these creditors, and the continuing association of Sullivan and Cromwell with German interests, led to criticism during World War II, much of it politically inspired, that Dulles was an appeaser.

As the "decade of despair" in Europe moved on, each year bringing the world closer to war, Dulles spent more and more time pondering America's role in this new stage of the struggle between "the dynamic and the static--the urge to acquire and the desire to retain." This was the central theme of his first book, War, Peace and Change (1939). Dulles had been concerned with this question since his experiences at Versailles, and it continued to trouble him after World War II, when he sought to counter the appeal of communism to newly independent and developing nations during the Cold War.

Like other Wall Street Republicans, Dulles was critical of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. He was not closely associated with the internationalist wing of the Republican party until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (1941) plunged the United States into full participation in the war. Only a few months before Pearl Harbor he was still arguing that America should stay out of the struggle, and he criticized Churchill and Roosevelt for trying to re-create the very conditions that had produced World War I.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, however, Dulles was deeply immersed in postwar planning. This work grew out of his interest in the possibility of mobilizing church opinion behind an international peace program. As a delegate to several international meetings and conferences of church leaders, he had been impressed by the spirit of unity that prevailed at such gatherings, and he seemed to believe that only the Christian church could dispel the worship of sovereignty. In 1940 he became chairman of the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace established by the Federal Council of Churches. Besides speaking frequently on behalf of a postwar world organization, Dulles traveled to Great Britain to stress the importance of sound postwar planning; he also put together a pamphlet, Six Pillars of Peace (1943), which summarized the commission's proposals.

By 1944 Dulles was regarded as a leading Republican spokesman on foreign affairs, destined to play a large role in postwar foreign policy. At the outset of the Cold War, the administration of Harry S. Truman hoped to pursue a bipartisan foreign policy and Dulles often served on special delegations to assist the secretary of state at meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers. Never a yes-man, Dulles made suggestions and occasionally took an independent line, but generally supported the president's policy. He was not known as a hardliner in those early years of the Cold War; his philosophic bent of mind sometimes led him to oppose not only the demands for stronger action against the Soviet Union put forward by other Republicans, but also some of the ideas presented within administration policy-making circles.

When Thomas E. Dewey lost the 1948 election to Truman, it seemed that Dulles had lost his chance to become secretary of state. Dewey appointed him to serve out the term of the late New York Senator Robert F. Wagner in 1949, but Dulles was defeated in a bid for election on his own the following November. Having time to reflect on the changed state of the world--and perhaps on his own apparently declining role--he wrote a second book. War or Peace (1950). Although he had often stressed the importance of moral considerations in conducting a successful foreign policy, the tone of this book was far more self-righteous and critical of American foreign policy. For the first time Dulles presented himself as a critic of the containment policy, although he had not yet found a suitable alternative.

His meditations were interrupted when President Truman asked him to undertake the negotiation and drafting of a peace treaty with Japan. Dulles accepted, although he must have been aware that he was given the assignment in large part because the administration needed someone to blunt Republican criticism of its Far Eastern policy. Before he left for Tokyo, Dulles urged Truman to take a stand in Asia against the spreading wave of communism.

The North Korean attack across the Thirty-eighth Parallel came while Dulles was in Japan. With General Douglas MacArthur, Dulles cabled Washington, calling upon the administration to offer aid to South Korea. The Korean War was still going on in 1952, when the Republicans nominated Dwight David Eisenhower for the presidency. Dulles drafted the foreign policy planks of the Republican platform, denouncing containment as a negative, futile, and immoral policy "which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism." The Republicans, Dulles promised, would revive "the contagious, liberating influences which are inherent in freedom."

Eisenhower warned Dulles that whenever he discussed "liberation" he wanted to make sure that the qualifying phrase "by all peaceful means" was in the same sentence. Dulles never intended that the United States undertake a military campaign to roll back Soviet power from Eastern Europe. This became apparent almost immediately when the Eisenhower administration did not intervene during the 1953 bread riots in East Germany; and any lingering doubts disappeared when the United States did nothing more than condemn Soviet actions in crushing the 1956 Hungarian attempt at revolution.

When Dulles assumed office as secretary of state in 1953, he was convinced that containment was the very policy that the static powers had pursued in the 1930's and that had led to war. He was equally convinced that the United States had to adopt a dynamic policy to counteract the ideological force being exerted by the communist powers. To a degree, therefore, liberation really meant separation from dependence on Great Britain and France and from the policies of once-great powers now in decline.

In Europe this would mean disassociation of American policy from any tendency to accommodate Soviet pretensions to the control of Eastern Europe and any recognition of a so-called sphere of influence. Thus he opposed summit diplomacy as reminiscent of wartime Big Three meetings (particularly Yalta), at which Russian demands were given an air of legitimacy. He was suspicious of British and French willingness to bargain about anything, especially if thereby they could maintain the remnants of their past glory and colonial empires. Dulles' criticism of Anglo-French policies and his penchant for stating the Eisenhower administration's position in dramatic sweeping phrases like "massive retaliation" and "agonizing reappraisal" alarmed critics; they began to consider him an inflexible moralist whose views hindered the nation's ability to deal with an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.

Dulles shrugged off such complaints, convinced that the United States could not afford to lose sight of moral and ideological questions in foreign policy. He regarded his greatest achievement to be the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which, he felt, had saved South Vietnam and turned the tide against communism throughout that area. No doubt his greatest disappointment came in the Middle East, where, despite three years of constant effort, he failed to realign Arab nationalism into a workable relationship with Israel and American policy.

The Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in the fall of 1956 was a political embarrassment for Eisenhower, coming as it did near the climax of the presidential campaign; but for Dulles, Suez was a nightmare, destroying all hope of reconciling emerging anticolonial forces with America's reinvigorated anticommunism. In his last years, Dulles apparently gave more and more thought to a different sort of reconciliation in Europe. While he remained adamant against any reunification of Germany that did not permit the Germans to participate fully in the West's defense arrangements, he seemed willing to consider a modus vivendi that would help both East and West--and the Germans--to live together in Europe.

Eisenhower supported Dulles at every juncture and over the years their relationship seemed to grow stronger and stronger. Seriously ill with cancer, Dulles resigned on Apr. 15, 1959. He died in Washington, D.C.

Dulles became a symbol for hard-line Cold War policies. It is ironic, however, that the same Democrats and liberals who voiced the strongest criticisms of his foreign policies were often found among those criticizing Eisenhower's military policies as being too "soft" toward the Soviet Union. Critics further suggest that Dulles set the United States on the road to confrontation with powerful nationalistic forces in the Third World by virtue of his insistence that "neutralism" was an immoral policy in the era of the Cold War and by his support for reactionary leaders in Southeast Asia and Latin America. A powerful secretary of state, Dulles will be remembered as a controversial statesman.


[The Dulles Papers and Dulles Oral History Collection are located at Princeton University. Other papers are in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kans. References to Dulles as secretary of state, as well as his own brief account of his New York senatorial campaign in 1949, are found in the Oral History Collection of Columbia University. In addition to the works cited in the text, Dulles wrote "Thoughts on Soviet Foreign Policy and What to Do About It," Life, May 3 and 10, 1946.

The standard reference is Louis L. Gerson, "John Foster Dulles," in Robert Ferrell, ed., The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, XVII (1967). Favorable accounts include John Robinson Beal, John Foster Dulles (1957); Roscoe Drummond and Gaston Coblentz, Dulles at the Brink: John Foster Dulles's Command of American Power (1960); Richard Goold-Adams. The Time of Power: A Reappraisal of John Foster Dulles (1963); Eleanor Lansing Dulles, John Foster Dulles: The Last Year (1963); and Michael Guhin, John Foster Dulles: A Statesman and His Times (1972).

Critical works include Emmet J. Hughes, The Ordeal of Power: A Political Memoir of the Eisenhower Years (1963); Herman Finer, Dulles Over Suez: The Theory and Practice of His Diplomacy (1964); Kennett Love, Suez: Twice Fought War (1970); and Townsend Hoopes, The Devil and John Foster Dulles (1973). See also the obituary notice in the New York Times, May 25, 1959.]


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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310014374