John Foster Dulles
John Foster Dulles; drawing by David Levine

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. The family sang hymns before breakfast, but also toured the capitals of Europe in pursuit of art and culture, and spent a remarkable amount of time at Grandfather Foster’s townhouse in Washington. There the children—John and four siblings—were exposed to the ambassadors, senators, journalists, and government officials Grandfather Foster cultivated once he left the State Department to become a lawyer and lobbyist for foreign governments.

Young “Foster,” as John interestingly preferred to be called, soon developed a taste for Washington life (as did brother Allen, who eventually headed the CIA, and sister Eleanor, who worked in the State Department), and by the time he went off to Princeton in 1904, at age sixteen, was already marking off distance from the parsonage. “I’ve thought about it a great deal,” he reportedly told his father shortly before graduating from college, “and I think that I could make a greater contribution as a Christian lawyer and a Christian layman than I would as a Christian minister.” The future Christian lawyer began his contributions by following his grandfather to a conference at The Hague—old Foster having been engaged to represent the imperial Chinese government. He then spent a year in Europe, accompanied most of the time by his parents, and returned to the capital to enroll at the law school of George Washington University.

On completing his law studies young Foster, through his grandfather’s intercession, landed a job at Sullivan and Cromwell, one of New York’s most prestigious law firms. There, in the tradition of other secretaries of state, he spent the next forty years growing rich by providing counsel for corporations and banks. Scarcely had he launched his legal career, however, than he returned to Washington. His uncle, Robert Lansing (old Foster’s son-in-law), had become Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state and in 1917, with the United States embarked upon the great crusade, called on John Foster to join the brigade of young intellectuals who had flocked to government bureaus. He puttered around the State Department, and then, in 1919, thanks to Uncle “Bert” joined his cohorts at the festivities in Paris as subdelegate to the peace conference.


While the Allies fought over war booty and frontiers, Dulles argued with other youngish observers like John Maynard Keynes, and contemplated the economic issues raised by the peace—particularly the harsh reparations policy toward Germany sought by Britain and France. Like many other disciples of Woodrow Wilson, he was more concerned with commerce than with punishment and thought that economic reform—free trade, open markets, and currency convertibility—could alleviate the causes of war. Boldly, in the vocabulary of the day, he proclaimed the need for “a world of new international relationships.” But the Bolshevik revolution tempered his enthusiasm for serious reform, as it did that of Wilson himself, and by the time he left Paris he had lowered his sights to propping up the old order, with a few cosmetic changes. His mild reformist heresies during this period fit in perfectly, as Pruessen comments, “with the Wilsonian dichotomy of teasing rhetoric and modest substance.”

Far from being misty-eyed, Dulles was, during the 1920s and 1930s, surprisingly tough-minded. He put his faith in the enlightened self-interest of international bankers rather than in organizations such as the League of Nations, which he felt actually provoked war by stifling political change. Though an economic conservative, he recognized that political structures had to be flexible enough to accommodate the ambitions of powerful newcomers. “Those whose lives fall in pleasant places contemplate with equanimity an indefinite continuation of their present state,” he wrote in 1935. ” ‘Peace’ means to them that they should be left undisturbed. It is those who seek change that are the disturbers of the peace. ‘Aggression’ becomes the capital international crime and ‘security’ the watchword. The popular demand for peace is thus capitalized by those who selfishly seek to have the world continue as it is.” But in contrast to such “presently endowed nations” as Britain, France, and the United States, he added, “rising” states such as Germany, Italy, and Japan would “appraise the ‘peace’ plans presented to them as schemes to eliminate the only effective mechanism of change.” Such phrases as “sanctity of treaties” and “resisting aggression,” he argued as late as October 1939 (that is, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland), “have always been the stock in trade of those who have vested interests which they wish to preserve against those in revolt against a rigid system.”

Such statements tended to feed suspicion, both at the time and long after, that Dulles was a fascist sympathizer. Accusations based on this evidence alone are certainly exaggerated, for even liberals were trying to find some way to accommodate the “rising” nations. But there may have been some reason for suspicion after all: not because of what Dulles wrote but because of what he did as a lawyer. Pruessen, who examines the matter in considerable detail, demonstrates how Dulles, through his position at Sullivan and Cromwell in the 1930s, participated actively in the creation and operation of two international cartels: Solvay and Cie. of Belgium, which organized a cartel of world chemical production in cooperation with I.G. Farben, and International Nickel of Canada, which also had direct links to the German firm. Although Dulles was technically correct in arguing that he was not employed by Farben, his role as legal counsel and director of Solvay and of Nickel actively involved him in the cartel, and he made several trips to Germany in the late 1930s on behalf of his clients. If Dulles “felt considerable repugnance toward the Hitler regime and guided his firm to a decision that it was impossible to do legal business in Nazi Germany,” Pruessen concludes, “his qualms were hardly categorical in execution.”

As a “Christian lawyer” Dulles not only kept morality out of politics during this period, but also took a surprisingly dim view of the notion that America was a country exceptional in its virtue and wisdom. “We want the rest of the world to grow rich—so that we may get some of its wealth,” he wrote of European economic reconstruction in the 1920s. “I doubt if there is anything particularly moral about our position.” It was erroneous, he declared, for Americans to assume that “any difference between ourselves and a foreign nation is due to the inherent righteousness of our own cause and the inherent perverseness of our neighbor.” International relations should not be approached, he continued, with the “complacent assumption that we are a party to a clashing of the forces of good and evil, and that solution is to be found in the moral regeneration of those who hold views contrary to our own.” International law, he told Henry Luce in 1943, was not law at all, since “no nation is, or feels bound to conform to any course of action other than its own interest,” including, he emphasized, the United States.


His moral relativism extended even to the Soviet Union. The Russians, he told a newspaper columnist in early 1944, were behaving in Poland not much differently from the way the United States had in Texas and Panama. “Most of the expansion of the American nation has been through war or the threat of war…,” he declared in a public address a year later. “How about the way we got Texas?” There were, he added pointedly, “no legal principles which enable us to redetermine the boundaries of Poland” in face of the “dynamism of the USSR.”

What a surprise, then, to find him writing, only a year later, a two-part essay for Luce’s Life magazine declaring that the Kremlin was intent on world domination and “eradicating the non-Soviet type of society which now dangerously divides the one world into incompatible halves.” In their efforts to achieve a Pax Sovietica, he underlined, the men in the Kremlin would “eliminate what, to us, are the essentials of a free society.” This is striking language for one who, until 1946, had drawn a sharp distinction between the Soviet Union as a state and communism as an ideology. “The foreign policy of the USSR today is that of Peter the Great,” he had stated in 1944. But with the Life articles he abruptly rejected the notion that the Soviet leaders had traditional great-power ambitions. Now he viewed them as messianic ideologues.

Why the switch? Pruessen himself confesses some puzzlement and questions whether Dulles really believed some of the things he began writing in 1946. His “highly simplistic, even melodramatic” views, Pruessen suggests, were due partly to a sincere change of mind about Soviet intentions and partly to the influence of people near him. But the overblown rhetoric and moralism were, he believes, at least in part a façade, a manipulative effort by Dulles to play to different audiences. As chairman of the church-sponsored Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, he stridently denounced the international communist conspiracy. To colleagues such as James P. Warburg, however, he observed that it was “farfetched” to assume that Russia was “seeking to conquer the world.”

From these statements, and from the wealth of information that Pruessen presents, it is clear that Dulles was more hypocritical than he seemed. He descended into depths of hyperbole when it served his purpose and was not above intellectual dishonesty in pursuit of his own ambition. During the 1944 presidential campaign, as Thomas Dewey’s foreign policy adviser he encouraged charges that President Roosevelt was secretly selling out the East Europeans—yet only a few months later he praised the Yalta accords on Eastern Europe (which, of course, he later denounced). He was manipulative, but also cautious—a man who understood more than he was willing to accept or to act upon, particularly where his own career was concerned.

Practicing an “intellectual brinkmanship,” in Pruessen’s words, “he went to the edge of an understanding of some of the most profound problems of the twentieth-century world—and then either stopped or turned back.” Though the author provides a good deal of evidence to support this contention, he owes us an explanation why Dulles turned back. Why did he shrink from the conclusion of his own analysis? Why did he accept a status quo whose durability and rationale he so powerfully denounced?

There is something about John Foster Dulles that does not quite hang together. The post-1945 messianic moralism that dominated his view of foreign policy seemed almost a costume. His involvement with the Federal Council of Churches, which intensified after 1940 and led him to justify policies as “moral” when they were merely expedient, was, no doubt, partly responsible. That involvement in turn affected his own perception of events and made him a less effective secretary of state than he might otherwise have been. He became the prisoner of his own rhetoric—a rhetoric that he himself only partly believed. He was both a moralist and a rather devious manipulator. It is an intriguing combination.

Unfortunately Pruessen has chosen to deal with this aspect of Dulles’s character only superficially. The emphasis of his book is almost entirely on an analysis of Dulles’s decisions and his reasons for making them. We are told of every bond issue that Dulles floated at Sullivan and Cromwell, and of nearly every paragraph of the Japanese peace treaty he negotiated, but virtually nothing about his family, friends, personal life, pleasures, and anxieties. The reason a biographer inquires into a man’s personality is not to entertain the casual reader, but to understand the character and emotional forces that often determine many apparently “reasoned” decisions. “Once you scratch the lives of human beings, the notion that political beliefs are logically determined collapses like a pricked balloon,” the young Walter Lippmann once wrote in words that seem appropriate here.

Although his book suffers from an unduly narrow focus, an annoying repetitiveness, an overuse of italics, a skimpy index, and an absence of narration and exposition to highlight the material, Pruessen has produced an impressive scholarly study that provides new insights into Dulles’s career. His task in the next volume will be to tell us not only how Dulles dealt with the great issues of American foreign policy during his tenure as secretary of state, but why he dealt with them as he did.

Was this because of the legal training he received, with its emphasis on advocacy, confrontation, and narrow intellectual distinctions? Why have so many secretaries of state been lawyers and what effect does this have on our foreign policy? Does their training prepare them for diplomacy or, on the contrary, are they attracted to diplomacy because it offers an escape from the narrowness of contracts and torts? This is an issue which Dulles’s career so clearly raises, yet which Pruessen has ignored. What does it mean to spend one’s entire adult life floating bond issues and helping corporations evade taxes; what kind of diplomat, what kind of foreign policy, does that produce?

To understand John Foster Dulles, the historian must go beyond the speeches he gave and the contracts he wrote, and explore the question of who he was. This is what Pruessen has not yet done, and why at the heart of this very long though partial biography there lodges a stubborn mystery.

This Issue

October 21, 1982