On the Brink of Dulles

John Foster Dulles: The Road to Power

by Ronald W. Pruessen
The Free Press, 575 pp., $19.95

He was the living symbol of the cold war: dour, grim, narrow lips perpetually turned down in a scowl, eyes bulging fishlike and impassive from behind wire-rimmed glasses. His life seemed to be spent getting in and out of airplanes, tirelessly circumnavigating the globe in pursuit of the international communist conspiracy. One never saw a photo of him smiling, let alone playing tennis. Compared to Stalin, who always managed to kiss a few babies for the cameras while building his gulags, he seemed a pitiless avenger, talking of “agonizing reappraisals” and “massive retaliation.” Mention his name and what comes to mind? A Puritan redeemer brandishing the Bomb in the name of a higher morality.

Time has been no kinder to John Foster Dulles than were many of his contemporaries. His years as Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state seem a period of rigid posturing, lost opportunities, and close calls. He signed up avaricious foreign politicians and called them allies, muffed a possible chance to work out a deal in Central Europe with Stalin’s successors, and nearly got us into France’s war in Indochina. This is the man most of us remember, and the one captured with such merciless intensity nine years ago in Townsend Hoopes’s pointedly titled The Devil and John Foster Dulles: a maniacal moralizer, a narrow-minded legalist, a cowardly accomplice of McCarthy, and an intellectually rigid ideologue.

But time is the reviser of all things, particularly of historical judgments, and in Ronald Pruessen’s long study we have a rather different Dulles: more subtle, more complex, and considerably more devious. He is also the Dulles about whom little is known and even less recollected, for this volume—the first of two, or perhaps even more—concentrates on the years before he became secretary of state in 1953. This is an excessive amount of space—575 pages—to devote to a prelude. The author would have been well advised to do the entire life in one volume. Pruessen, a historian at the University of Toronto, drags out his tale with excessive thoroughness. But those with patience, an inordinate interest in the subject, and an indifference to repetition will be well rewarded. The author has mastered an impressive amount of material, eschewed facile judgments, and maintained a respect for his subject despite what seems a clear difference of views.

What emerges is not so much a biography—that is, the life, inner as well as outer, of a human being—as an intellectual analysis of considerable skill. Whether or not Dulles was interesting as a human being, one will probably never know, and certainly not from this book. His life seems to have been stultifyingly pedestrian, although there were no doubt a number of personal dramas along the way that we are not told about. As a public man he seemed cut from the right cloth: his father was a worldly vicar in upstate New York, his mother the well-traveled daughter of a former secretary of state …

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