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 …

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