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The Days of the Dulleses

Dulles: A Biography of Eleanor, Allen, and John Foster Dulles and Their Family Network

by Leonard Mosley
The Dial Press/James Wade, 530 pp., $12.95


This book is not what you’d call a scholarly work, but it has the virtue of retrieving a mood from the recent past. Through the Sixties and early Seventies there was a tendency among some who contributed to this and kindred periodicals to hark back tenderly to the Eisenhower administration. If only we’d known what was coming next, these writers seemed to say, we would never have made such harsh judgments. What was experienced as the torpor of the Fifties looked to them ten years later as a haven of stability and content. What was perceived as Eisenhower’s indolence, and derided as “passive” and “female,” and after his heart attack simply as a case of arteriosclerotic decay, now was considered keen judgment. Ike had had all his marbles after all. He knew what he was doing: he got us out of a “no-win” war in Korea that had been Truman’s fault anyway and kept us out of Vietnam, which was more than Kennedy did.

Ike had heavies on his team. That was because he needed people like Nixon who could get on with Robert Taft’s right-wing Republicans. Ike knew how to manipulate his subordinates and he chose them for abilities he knew he did not have. Ike was intuitive but no deep thinker; he had neither the capacity nor the bent to ponder “broad matters of policy,” as they were wearily called. So he chose John Foster Dulles, an eminent Presbyterian who had waited fifty years for the occasion, to be his secretary of state.

So goes a current theory, which this gossipy biography of the Dulles family ignores. Maybe Mr. Mosley hasn’t heard of it, maybe he found it not worth considering. His views on Eisenhower and Dulles (the president was a dolt who did what the secretary told him) are well within the vein of 1950s liberal chit-chat. But this book performs a service in bringing back to us the cold war and its statesmen as we knew them then, before the historians went to work. The book dispels some of the nostalgia for a tawdry decade which has enchanted certain intellectuals the way the sound of Eddie Fisher singing “Oh My Papa” (did that mean Ike?) affects members of the high-school class of ‘56, now pushing forty. This is healthy: it restores a semblance of how it really felt to be trapped in the wintry time when the general took the helm:

Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look. The fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.
—Robert Lowell, “Inauguration Day, 1953”

Leonard Mosley is an English journalist who lives in the south of France, where almost everything turns out for the best. He knew Churchill personally and interviewed Hitler and Haile Selassie, he was chief war correspondent of the London Sunday Times, he has been all over the world and still “logs 50,000 miles of travel every year,” according to his publisher. Novels, biographies, a partial autobiography, and a prodigious amount about Japan, the Mideast, Europe, and the US have rolled from his typewriter. There seems no stopping this man; he has an OBE and several book club subsidies to his credit, of which this big BOMC selection is the latest. Doing so he invites the scorn of academic historians and the wrath of those people (dismayed friends and relatives of a dead biographee) whose honest recollections the author has thwarted, distorted, and if necessary aborted in his ardor to produce a good read.

With a subject as interesting yet as wearisome as the Dulleses the pop biographer is hard-pressed to liven up his pages, to expose the reader to challenging material without obliging him actually to think about it. To simplify the task a bibliography is omitted, and instead of pedantic reference notes casual paragraphs identify the sources of each chapter. Depth is absent; complexity is reduced to capsule form. Sleazy prose makes do for insight—and most egregiously so in the case of Allen Dulles with his epic philandering, the psychic suffering of his mismated wife who became a patient of Carl Jung, the grim estrangement from his father of Allen Dulles, Jr., which began well before he caught a North Korean bullet in his head while a fighting Marine at the Chosen Reservoir.

In-jokes and verbatim anecdotes abound, enclosed in quotation marks that may run on for paragraphs and say little more than that Mosley has interviewed this or that consequential person. And there are journalistic lapses which are usually caught by copyreaders when they are not already bleary-eyed from a profusion of lapses. That Herbert Hoover, Jr., the diplomat, was the president’s son does not mean that a diplomat named Douglas MacArthur, Jr., is the general’s son, since he is the general’s nephew. There are so many of these petty errors that the reader gets leery and that is too bad since Mosley makes an honest effort to tell us much we did not know.

Eleanor Dulles, eighty-two, is Mosley’s heroine and principal source; he couldn’t have written this book without her. The family history and childhood reminiscence, the “revealing” details of growing up with two problematical brothers, the glimpses of the joyless domestic lives they led as public men come straight from Eleanor. Still there is nothing vindictive in the testimony of a derided, chubby little sister who wore thick eyeglasses and outlived her famous brothers. She describes Allen and Foster, in their weakest moments, with unflagging affection and an ingenuous, trusting manner which Mosley makes the most of. One fairly sees him charming reel after indiscreet reel of recording tape from this sympathetic lady, as though nobody had ever paid her so much deference before. So it must have dismayed Mosley when, very recently, Eleanor Dulles engaged a public relations firm to proclaim her extreme displeasure with this book and its author. In a statement and newspaper interviews she declared that it contains “at least 900 errors of fact” and is “fiction masquerading as history.” She regrets having cooperated with Mosley.

The Dulleses grew up in Watertown, New York, on the shore of Lake Ontario. Their father was a minister of the First Presbyterian Church. At the start of this century the Rev. Allen Macy Dulles was of a valiant minority in the presbytery who did not condemn Darwinism, demand literal acceptance of the virgin birth, or forbid remarriage of divorced persons. Eleanor inherited his dedication to principle. Foster and Allen were influenced by their mother, whose sophisticated family spread beyond upstate New York to Washington. Her father, John W. Foster, was Benjamin Harrison’s secretary of state. Her sister Eleanor—Eleanor’s aunt Eleanor—married Robert M. Lansing, a hustling young lawyer whom the children knew as Uncle Bert. Shortly before he expired, Grandfather Foster, through white and copious Franz-Josephian side whiskers, imbued his namesake: “I expect great things of you, Foster.” But it was for Uncle Bert Lansing, soon to become Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, to impart to Foster a taste for the law and an appetite for power. Foster was a wise and imperious lad and the alpha among his siblings. Allen, who was romantic and mercurial, deferred to him.

As for Eleanor, Foster chivied and hectored her as he later did to sovereign nations. He fashioned a wooden sign, “Eleanor has a——ache” and placed in the center of the blank space a hook. To hang on the hook he provided his ever-forgiving, never-forgetting sister with a model leg, arm, foot, head, whichever part of her might be paining next. That way there would be no excuse for her to bother others with her complaints. When a disappointment reduced Eleanor to tears, he addressed her as he later might some dissident faction of a Balkan state: “You are not crying because you are sad. You are sad because you are crying.” This rigorous phase of her development ended in 1904 when Foster entered Princeton, aged sixteen. Allen followed him there, and Eleanor went to Bryn Mawr.

She worked very hard. As a student of Professor Susan Kingsbury, she early became a feminist; an account of Eleanor Dulles’s battle against male supremacy in and out of government would make an excellent ERA brochure. She endured pain, humiliation, and private tragedy with an unflinching stoicism that even John Foster admired.

Foster and Allen were a long time in comprehending what a powerhouse their eccentric sister had grown to be. When America entered the First World War she asked Uncle Bert what she could do to help. He laughed at her, “Go home and sew socks.” So, in a fury, three days after graduating from Bryn Mawr, she sailed for France. As a volunteer, armed endearingly with a whistle and a rubber truncheon to repel molesters, she took care of refugees in Paris during the worst of the German bombardment. She served through the Battle of Marne, while Foster, with his bad eyesight, worked for Bernard Baruch in Washington at the War Industries Board and Allen was in Berne trying all by himself to emulate the British Intelligence Service.

Just before the Versailles peace conference Uncle Bert Lansing fell from grace. The kind of maneuvering that had made him secretary of state after driving William Jennings Bryan from office was about to bring him down. Uncle Bert supposed that he was the only American smart enough to negotiate with a couple of horse thieves like Clemenceau and Lloyd George; he wanted to do the bargaining and to keep the woolly-minded Wilson out of it. Sensing this, the president’s vigilant aide Colonel House most emphatically advised Wilson not to listen to his secretary. Uncle Bert stayed on glumly at the conference, keeping his cool and trying to look busy. Eleanor observed him: “Uncle Bert was a very controlled man…. I don’t think he ever expressed what he was feeling.”

Eleanor was living in a refugee camp near Château-Thierry in the spring of 1919; she made visits to Paris, and stayed with the American delegation at the Hotel Crillon. The peace conference was collapsing; one by one the Fourteen Points were going down the toilet. As Uncle Bert had foreseen, the British and French and Italians were making a monkey of the president. Aunt Eleanor Lansing made a family party of it in the secretarial suite. John Foster Dulles was there; he’d wangled a job with his new benefactor Bernard Baruch on the Reparations Commission. Allen Dulles got himself on the Boundary Commission and carved new states from the map of Central Europe. “I don’t know that I deserve…credit for the shape of the country I produced in Czechoslovakia,” he reminisced in one of the jocular orientation lectures he used to give to CIA recruits. “It looks something like a banana….”

Meanwhile his eager sister, who’d seen a lot of what French peasants suffered from the Germans, was arguing with Foster for a sternly vengeful reparations policy against the Hun. No, said Foster, that would never work; it would only impoverish the Germans; transferring wealth is not the same as gaining wealth. To back him in his argument, Foster introduced Eleanor to his English colleague in Reparations, John Maynard Keynes, who was about to resign and write The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

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