John Foster Dulles was sixty-five years old before he tasted real power. He had maintained, to that point, a sidling and dependent semi-fame, for no very good reason. From Wall Street he had vaguely advised—not well, but often: candidates, presidents, churches, countries. Author of two uplift books on peace. Presbyterian lay-divine at large. Dewey’s dim eminence. Right-wing internationalist Republican among Democrats—everybody’s favorite guy from the opposite camp. Few people liked him, including his children—his wife struck others as an oddity because she did. He had a Big Answer for the world’s still-unasked questions, and was always hurrying off to tell someone in power what it was.

He picked up an astonishing range of patrons, some of whom could not remember how they acquired this discomfiting client. He started with his grandfather (Benjamin Harrison’s Secretary of State) and his uncle (Wilson’s Secretary of State), latched onto Dewey and Vandenberg, crawled into favor with Acheson and Truman (who let him settle the Japanese treaty as a gesture to bipartisanship); then, with an apparent swerve, he combined Luce and Knowland with Dewey and Brownell to reach his greatest patron of all. Without ever becoming a household word, he was the thinking man’s fourth choice (as measured by a Saturday Review poll) for President in 1952—after Eisenhower, Taft, and Kefauver.

Dulles had no political “base” in the conventional sense, but a weird sprung architecture of supports—from church groups, career bureaucrats, Wall Street lawyers, UN supporters, and the China Lobby. At no other time in history could that ill-assorted combination produce clout; and even then he needed a few miracles thrown in—including that phenomenon, still only half-deciphered, called Eisenhower. After decades of shirttail-clutching for short rides, Dulles grabbed an authentic comet’s tail—grabbed it so hard that some men think the tail ended up wagging the comet.

Mr. Hoopes gives a very full, and usually fair, account of the man’s career, devoting over 400 of the book’s 550 pages to the last seven years of power under Eisenhower. While critical of Dulles, Hoopes clears him of some past charges (e.g., I. F. Stone’s claim that he deliberately provoked the Korean war, in collaboration with General MacArthur). Yet despite thorough research and rich narrative detail, Mr. Hoopes’s subject keeps fading out of the book’s pursuing spotlight. The more intense the focusing, the less visible Dulles becomes. Hoopes is reduced to a seesaw catechism of contradictory accusations—that Dulles was too rigid, and too opportunistic, as shiftily pious as a crooked parson; in thrall to an orthodoxy, yet simply a tactician; an Olympian infighter and creedless dogmatizer; too white when not too black, and never anything between.

Hoopes, while admitting the “revisionist” thesis that Eisenhower knew what he was up to after all, largely accepts the conventional picture of Dulles as just a fanatically religious anticommunist crusader. Yet his own evidence shows that Dulles began to take religion seriously only in 1937, and to take communism seriously only in 1945—long after his general views on international order had been formed. And Hoopes can do nothing to account for the drastic shifts that seemed to take place as his subject “moved” from a Wilsonian internationalism toward his alliance with Senators Taft and Knowland in a “unilateralism” which, Hoopes assures us, was simply a new guise for the old isolationism.

The trouble with Hoopes may lie in his easy adoption of those old categories “internationalist” and “isolationist.” The men called internationalists looked toward Europe, and sought accommodation; while isolationists looked toward Asia, and sought expansion. The first group thought of America as one among many powers, even if foremost among them. The second group treated America as a blessed exception, freed from Europe’s evil and offering a new hope to Indians, Mexicans, Polynesians, Chinese—all those waiting for their doors to be opened. It is no accident that the “isolationist” party, the Republicans, waged the Philippine wars, undertook the major imperialist thrust of our history (at the turn of this century), and combined religion with a sense of national destiny: McKinley concluded that we must take up the white man’s burden in the Pacific “to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

The elder Robert Taft, so critical of Roosevelt for war in Europe, worshiped at the shrine of MacArthur when he called for victory in Korea. The isolationists, of all people, complained that we had “lost” China, since China was ours to lose. No one would have said that we lost England if Hitler had conquered it in 1940. It was not ours. The course of American empire was always westward, and the first great “isolationist” so far as Europe was concerned, Thomas Jefferson, was also our first imperialist President. Isolation did not mean separation from all nations, only from Europe. And “internationalism” was more a tropism toward Europe than an evenhanded attitude toward all the world.


These contrary impulses in our history were united, uncomfortably, after World War II, for several reasons. First, we now confronted another nation opening toward both Europe and Asia. The bomb was dropped, among other things, to keep Russia from entering the Pacific (“our” world) as decisively as it had come into Europe. Second, we now had to cope with waning European imperialisms in the East (England’s in India, France’s in Indochina). Dean Acheson supported French claims to Indochina as the price of support for the Schuman and Pleven plans in Europe—for the general health of NATO. Thus did the most ardent “internationalists” get involved in the Pacific, laying the groundwork for the Geneva Accords. Third, the Orient, conceived of by old isolationists as “innocent” of Western culture, had now been infected with Marxism, the worst of European heresies. Westward we did not confront rude natives any more, but corrupted ideologues. China was not only stolen from us, but stolen by our ancient European foe, and spoiled by the very infection we tried to avoid. Fourth, the League’s failure had impressed even on those who distrusted Europe the need for some better way to deal with our prodigal ancestors (resentment toward whom had been blunted by wartime alliance).

Dulles fit naturally into this postwar world because he had always looked both East and West, transcending the mere tropisms of most other politicians. He had been one of those bright young American aides whose hopes were dashed at Versailles, when European perfidy did in the peaceful vision of Wilson; and who lived to work for those ideals again in 1945. (Dulles was a far more faithful servant of the UN than, say, Acheson had been.) As generals always wage the last war, our diplomats at the San Francisco Conference were negotiating the last peace, still trying to make the League of Nations work. But Dulles had also been a part of that missionary Republican culture that worked for the “conversion” of China. His grandfather had lobbied for the Imperial Government long before a different kind of China lobby arose. Dulles’s other grandfather, an ordained missionary, died at his post in the Orient. Dulles père, also in orders, collected pennies for the support of such good work among the heathen.

There was every reason for Dulles to get on famously with Henry Luce, the son of a Chinese missionary. Dulles went with his maternal grandfather to the Third Hague Conference (called by Tsarist Russia) and served as a teen-age secretary to the Chinese delegation. He was thus an “internationalist” who could share Bill Knowland’s love of China and Joe McCarthy’s suspicion of fancypants European diplomats—one reason for the clash over Suez was our Secretary of State’s cordial dislike for Anthony Eden. On the other hand, Dulles had studied at the Sorbonne (attending Bergson’s lectures) and lived in an Ivy League ambiance. Wilson had been his professor at Princeton before he was his diplomatic superior at Versailles. His grandfather John Foster served the Republican administration of Benjamin Harrison before his “Uncle Bert” (Robert Lansing) served Democrats under Wilson.

Dulles had what looked like a double heritage linking him to different camps. But he did not see opposition where other men would. He was Wilson’s pupil in every way (as were other Republicans, like Herbert Hoover). Wilson had transcended the division between “compromisers” with Europe’s corruption and “missionaries” to the unspoiled East. Wilson turned back toward Europe, with an Anglophilia that sometimes made him Bagehot’s parrot; but he went back as a missionary, too. He seemed to be foreswearing the benevolent imperialism of McKinley—he did not want to Christianize the East, or to imitate Europe; he just wanted every nation to be its own master. The doctrine of “self-determination” seemed to cut across all cultures, to be “value free”—any regime is valid so long as it is indigenous—and yet it allowed the missionary impulse a covert license even in the “Old World.” America would teach the nations—East and West—how to be not quite American, but “representative.”

This gospel seemed to combine the best features of America’s past attitudes toward other nations (a willingness to re-enter the European world and to open up contacts with the East) while avoiding their disadvantages (subservience to European ways and imposition on the East). So young Herbert Hoover went bravely off to campaign for the League of Nations in California (of all places) and got soundly beaten. One aspect of Wilson’s vision found its most faithful disciples in the Republican party (or its Bull Moose offshoot).


But perhaps the greatest believer of all was Foster Dulles. His anticommunism, grafted late onto the essential policies, was cast in terms of Wilsonian procedure (Stalin allowed no free elections, engaged in Slavic imperialism, helped Europe interfere in the Orient). The proof of this is that Dulles involved us in Indochina as much out of distaste for French imperialism as for what he perceived as Russian expansion. Diem appealed to him as a Christian who hated the Christian colonizers out of France. This made him almost more “native” than the Buddhists, an apt spokesman for a “third force” vision of benevolent guidance. Dulles was thus a man of simple but large vision, one large enough to comprehend apparent contradictions.

No wonder Dulles grated. Americans hate to see the country’s deeper assumptions made explicit—we look such fools. Wilson found that out, and Dulles learned it in his turn. There was, moreover, a tactical reason for diabolizing Dulles—the one Murray Kempton finds in liberal overreaction to Joe McCarthy. McCarthyism was powerful, all right—principally because milder cold warriors used a ritual shriving from his excesses to justify “true” anticommunism of the Truman-Acheson strain. All the real governmental moves of the cold war were made to look pacific by contrast with the wild proposals of a single senator. When Arthur Vandenberg told Truman to “scare hell out of the country” in order to enact the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine, he meant that Truman should scare people with the Red Menace—and Truman did. But Truman had in time to leash the very devils he had loosed, and he did that by scaring people with the McCarthy Menace.

Either way you looked at it, Truman had to be our savior—from communism abroad and anticommunism at home. The pat distinction between “external threat” and “internal threat” was invented to protect this double operation. Dulles became, for liberal spokesmen, a justification of Truman’s fuzzier cold war, exactly as McCarthy had justified his “security” program.

But if the Achesons of the world had their uses for Dulles, so did Eisenhower. Hoopes, try as he may, cannot explain why a bright and successful President (which he grants Eisenhower, by and large, to have been) should have used such a blunt and divisive instrument as Dulles. Eisenhower, so bland in his approach, did not personalize his fight with adversaries, as Truman had. He didn’t expel enemies; he swallowed them. He avoided a direct clash with McCarthy—Nixon was used to handle that unpleasantness, earning his keep by selling out a putative ally. And just as Eisenhower used Nixon against McCarthy at home, he began by using Dulles against MacArthurism in his foreign policy.

This, after all, was the crucial area for Eisenhower. He had been elected for his record in foreign affairs—1952 being a rare presidential race that centered more on international than domestic issues. Yet the MacArthurism of, e.g., Bill Knowland, Eisenhower’s own majority leader, represented a threat from that side of the ideological and actual map—the Pacific—where Eisenhower had no experience or claim upon men. The invader of Europe and mainstay of NATO confronted, symbolically, a military and personal rival whose war he had promised to conclude—and this was the one war even Taft had endorsed.

If Eisenhower was not to be resented in his own party as a spokesman only for the Eastern Establishment, he needed, desperately, to neutralize suspicion of his foreign policy. All his first actions show this—the promise to go to Korea, the staged first conferences in mid-Pacific where Dulles was a puzzled spear-carrier, the protective “tough” rhetoric he used in bringing about a Korean settlement. Dulles had by this time negotiated the Japanese peace treaty, in friendly cooperation with MacArthur; he had become a close friend of Henry Luce, contributing “think pieces” to Life; and he was friendly to the China lobby, without quite being part of it. He was the ideal pacifier of wounded Taftites—yet, with his background, he would not consider work with the Eastern Establishment a betrayal. His early patron, after all, had been Dewey, Ike’s main promoter in the party.

If Eisenhower saw the necessity for such instruments as Nixon and Dulles in 1952, he also showed a fastidious distaste for their respective crudities. He thought he could get rid of them later on. But Nixon refused to be dumped; and Dulles earned genuine respect as he took on new uses for the President. Personal faults aside, he had a vision and knowledge wider than most men’s—Acheson was his superior in personal style, but not in the conceptual framework of his foreign policy. Eisenhower, very weak at abstract thinking despite his shrewd judgment of men, needed someone to articulate the broad policy questions, even at the cost of being overexplicit and rigid in their formulation—then Eisenhower would transcend that formula (exasperating Dulles in the process).

The President not only steered clear of all those brinks Dulles had so clearly marked (Hungary, Berlin, Cuba, Indochina) but restrained the allies as well (the French in Indochina, the British at Suez); and he made the first overtures for an end to the cold war—his Atoms for Peace plan, the first nuclear test suspension (much criticized by Henry Kissinger at the time), his Open Skies proposal, his invitation to the Camp David talks, his journey to the summit. Often these gestures looked naive, but they had the force of Eisenhower’s great power to convey sincerity, and were all the more striking because Dulles was grumbling in the background. It was the equivalent, in foreign affairs, of the mean-cop/nice-cop treatment given suspects. Dulles unsettled, so that Ike could soothe.

Dulles never caught on to his role—if he had possessed a sense of humor, the main instrument for such an insight, he would not have qualified for the role in the first place. Ike’s use of him was no doubt instinctive, the acquired response of a commander who always put subordinates in the most exposed positions. Truman caught all the heat in his day, because he was being used by Acheson. Eisenhower deflected criticism away from himself and toward his Secretary of State—he was the user, not the used.

The act continued to work extremely well, as we can learn from its sequel. By the Hoopes account of things, Eisenhower should have been more effective once his bumbling agent was removed. But after the death of Dulles, Eisenhower’s final tours and trip to the summit were fuzzy in aim and impact. Without Dulles to fume over Khrushchev’s cancellation of the Paris talks, Eisenhower did not seem to be showing restraint so much as weakness. By the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy could assail the feebleness of Ike’s response to Castro and Khrushchev. The President who had outmaneuvered Taft’s people was thus exposed to a subtler Eastern charge of “sell-out” to the foe. These attacks would have been less plausible with Dulles on the scene leading a counterattack—how could Kennedy look tougher than the archetypal cold warrior? Given the slight margin of Kennedy’s victory, the austere presence of Dulles might have swung the balance, bringing Nixon into office eight years ahead of time.

Poor Ike, he had lost the one man he used best; yet he could never shake the one he disliked and tried repeatedly to dump. Dulles was not his great failure, but one of his finer achievements. Nixon, the instrument that got out of hand, was his greatest failure.

This Issue

February 7, 1974