Allen Welsh Dulles was not the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, or the best, certainly not the wisest, or even the most aggressive, although in that category he comes in a very close second, after William Casey, whose most extravagant secret efforts to win the cold war may be plausibly blamed on the brain tumor which killed him. But Allen Dulles probably had the deeper natural instinct for what his biographer Peter Grose, echoing Kipling, likes to call The Great Game, and he was without question the most important director of the CIA in its first half century—granting, for the moment, that the agency will finish the full fifty years without being sliced up or killed altogether by an irritated Congress.

The conduct of secret intelligence, which was Dulles’s central preoccupation from his first job as a young diplomat in Switzerland during the First World War until his forced resignation from the CIA in 1961, is only part of what Kipling had in mind when he referred to The Great Game. By that he principally meant the hundred-year struggle between Russia and Great Britain for control of Central Asia, and it was a renewed contest with Soviet Russia following the Second World War for control of the entire globe that Dulles pursued with a patriot’s devotion, an appetite for combat, and an elastic sense of the permissible.

Dulles never doubted that the fate of the world as he knew it was at stake, but Dulles was not always right. It is possible that Stalin and his successors had more modest ambitions in mind when they determined to hold on to the countries of Eastern Europe liberated by Soviet armies in 1945. As Grose makes clear in his exemplary book, the best efforts of Dulles’s spies rarely succeeded in penetrating the innermost secrets of the Soviet regime. After the CIA acquired the U-2 spy plane in 1956 and spy satellites in 1960, the agency always knew what the Soviets had, and conventional intelligence efforts kept pretty good track of what the Soviets did, but often neither Dulles nor later directors of Central Intelligence knew what the Soviets really intended. Dulles was required to decide this question on his own.

Next to the somber granite edifice of his older brother, John Foster Dulles, who preached the antiCommunist gospel as Eisenhower’s secretary of state, Allen seemed a genial friend of everyman, with his booming laugh and comfortable way of answering hard questions with a joke or a wink. He loved tennis and played as often as he could between attacks of gout and “skull sessions,” talking shop with operatives in from the field. He seems to have been completely free of personal malice. But intimates knew it was only surface polish that distinguished him from his brother. Dulles unhesitatingly rose to Nikita Khrushchev’s challenge in 1956 when the Russian told a roomful of Western diplomats, “History is on our side. We will bury you.” The fears and alarms of the cold war seem melodramatic and overdrawn now, but the Dulles who ran the CIA during the Eisenhower years was fired by steely resolve to carry the fight to the enemy, and to prevail. Grose gives us the fight round by round in Gentleman Spy; whether Dulles prevailed shall be considered below.

Allen Dulles was not the only man Eisenhower might have appointed to run the CIA in 1953. Indeed one candidate was Dulles’s former boss in the Office of Strategic Services during the war, William J. Donovan, called “Wild Bill” for good reason, who was bored by the law and longed for another chance at the excitements of intelligence in a great cause. But there was behind the choice of Dulles a kind of glacial weight of career, connection, and circumstance. Born in 1893 in upstate New York, son of a Presbyterian minister of modest means, Allen Dulles was the grandson of one secretary of state (John Watson Foster, who served a year under Benjamin Harrison) and nephew of another (Robert Lansing, under Woodrow Wilson), and as a young man Dulles hoped for a chance at the job himself.

His decade with the Foreign Service, beginning in 1916, gave him much experience—a year in Vienna before the United States entered the First World War, a second year spent handling political intelligence in Berne, most of 1919 with the American delegation to the Versailles peace conference, followed by a brief posting to Berlin in time to witness a right-wing military putsch suppressed after a frightening week of confusion and street violence. Among the victims were unlucky Jews beaten half to death before Dulles’s eyes. During a later tour in Constantinople the talk was all of the White Forces fighting across the border in southern Russia against the Bolsheviks. But back in Washington in the early 1920s Dulles got a law degree, and in 1926 he resigned from the Foreign Service for the simple reason that the job didn’t pay enough. His brother Foster’s law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, did, and he joined it.


The later 1920s and 1930s for Dulles were a time of making money, keeping a hand in with the odd diplomatic assignment, persuading his brother Foster in 1935 to quit doing business in Hitler’s Germany, and finding for himself a role in the coming war. To the extent Dulles ever had a private life, this was when he had it. Between his tours in Berlin and Turkey, Dulles had acquired a wife, Clover Todd, safely Presbyterian, pretty, with a taste for going deeply into things of the mind and spirit. This was not at all Dulles’s style, which they both discovered after the first bloom of marriage and young children began to fade. For the rest of their fifty years together Dulles and his wife maintained diplomatic recognition but were frequently apart, often at odds, and at times lived almost as complete strangers. They had three children, including a son who lost part of his brain to shrapnel during the Korean War and has required constant supervision and care ever since. His daughter Joan saw her father cry only once, in June 1940, when the Nazis occupied Paris.

Dulles’s children do not appear to have complained to his biographer but it is clear that life at home was often bleak and lonely. Dulles gave his leisure hours to many women, among them a daughter of Toscanini, a queen of Greece, and Clare Boothe Luce, the wife of Time magazine’s founder and publisher. Whether Clover also had lovers is not quite clear; she certainly deserved them. Dulles doubtless loved his family but they did not interest him. What interested him was men, politics, position, the drama of great events, and being on the inside. Sullivan and Cromwell offered enough of each to keep the appetite keen. His heart’s desire was granted at last in November of 1942, when he slipped across the border into Switzerland with a broad mandate from Donovan as the OSS’s man in Berne. For the next twenty months he was a prisoner in Heaven—no wife, no kids, no dull legal work, and a secret war to fight.

The reputation that made Allen Dulles the inevitable man to head the CIA in 1953 was earned in Switzerland. There he did two notable things. Very soon after his arrival he established contact with the German resistance, a loose nexus of German radicals, conservatives, and conscience-driven Protestants united only by courage and opposition to the crimes of Hitler. When some of them organized a plot on Hitler’s life, Dulles reported to Washington on their halting progress toward the failed attempt of July 20, 1944. Making contact with the underground opposition in a police state was a major covert achievement, exceeded only by Dulles’s success in keeping their exchanges secret despite the scrutiny of German intelligence, which knew his identity from the day he arrived, placed agents in his household, and at one time was even reading his secret cables to Washington. At the end of the war Dulles wrote and published a short book on the resistance called Germany’s Underground, still an important source on their hopes and mostly tragic fate. But good Germans were not a hot property in 1947, and the book could hardly be given away.

Dulles’s second triumph in Berne was to negotiate the surrender of German military forces in Italy before the end of the war. Grose is particularly good here, as elsewhere, at providing a crisp account of a complex episode. What made this one especially delicate was Stalin’s suspicion of his allies. Having precipitated the war himself by agreeing to a non-aggression pact with Germany in August 1939, Stalin was keenly alert to the danger that Churchill and Roosevelt might reach a separate peace with Hitler and leave Russia to face Germany alone. When the Americans, abiding by their agreements to the letter, informed Stalin of the initial contact with General Karl Wolff in February 1945, Dulles’s task was immensely complicated. He succeeded eventually in the negotiations for surrender, but not until May 2, only a few days before the war ended generally.

Dulles got plenty of things wrong during the war; he was far too credulous, for example, about the so-called “Bavarian redoubt,” where Hitler allegedly planned to fight on from an impregnable fortress in the German Alps. Hitler had no such plans and stayed in his bunker. But Dulles got the big things right when they counted most. His contact with the Resistance offered a doorway into the mood of the German elite—a growing sense of impending defeat, held in check by fear of the Gestapo. Knowing that Germans felt trapped and helpless gave Washington confidence that victory was only a matter of time—a confidence, everything considered, as useful as an extra ten divisions. Ending the war in Italy a week early saved the Allies hundreds and perhaps thousands of casualties. With the exception of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, no intelligence operation of the Second World War achieved more than did Dulles’s tiny office in Berne, staffed with a miscellany of Americans stranded in Switzerland by the war. What Dulles did he did largely by himself. Continuing secrecy about most of the details only polished the luster of his feats. After the war he lobbied patiently for a national intelligence service, and urged that all secret activities be housed under a single roof. He was willing to work quietly in lesser jobs when others were put in charge, and was undeniably, irresistibly, and conspicuously available when Eisenhower wanted a spy chief to support an aggressive foreign policy pledged to roll back communism.


Gentleman Spy has an unusual history. Grose inherited a partly written and thoroughly researched manuscript which had been started and then abandoned a decade earlier by Richard Harris Smith, author of an early history of the OSS. Smith had interviewed scores of old CIA hands during the early 1970s and had completed a long account of Dulles’s years in the agency, when a Senate investigating committee under Senator Frank Church began to release an exhaustive series of reports in 1976. Smith felt he would have to rework all he had written in light of the new material but found it impossible to resume the task.

Eventually a new publisher recruited Grose to “complete” the book, but while some sections still show the influence of Smith’s earlier work this is still very much Grose’s book. Smith’s thousand pages, filled with operational detail, have been largely thrown out by Grose, who has instead written a genuine life—a biography which sticks closely to the man, his character, and the influence on history which was truly and uniquely his, not simply the work of the agency under his command. What emerges is a portrait of Allen Dulles as one of the architects and early commanders of the cold war, a man whose profound selfconfidence gave a vigorous pugnacity to American foreign policy for a decade.

Europe was the prize fought over during the cold war, but by the time Dulles became director of Central Intelligence in 1953 Europe was no longer the principal battleground. The division of the continent mapped by the Iron Curtain was too dangerous to cross, a fact recognized by the Russians at the end of the Berlin blockade and by the Americans, with some internal self-questioning, and even anguish, after the popular antiCommunist uprisings were suppressed in Berlin in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. The CIA under Dulles had hoped and even prepared for rebellion in the East, and had actually organized Hungarian resistance forces; but when the moment arrived, and any serious attempt to help rebels defeat Soviet tanks would have demanded American tanks, realism prevailed. The battlegrounds of the cold war thereafter moved to the third world, where actual combat by covert warriors and proxy armies could be safely conducted—that is, without threatening the interests of an opponent so obviously vital that full-scale war was bound to result.

The principal campaigns of the CIA under Dulles form a kind of silent coda to whatever was agitating the White House and John Foster Dulles at any given moment—the propaganda war with the Soviets; the “immoral” (in Foster’s view) neutralism of Indonesia and India; Soviet ambitions in the Middle East, where oil, Israel, and European allies all tugged American policy in different directions; revolutionary movements in Africa, Central America, and Cuba; and Soviet military programs which might threaten American reliance on nuclear deterrence.

This last probably burned up more calories of human energy in argument than all the others combined. The general public, horrified by the escalating levels of nuclear weaponry, never quite grasped what was at stake in the dispute over “deterrence”—whether the United States could sanely threaten to defend Europe with atomic and hydrogen bombs. Defense budgets hinged on the answer to that question. Whenever the Soviets “caught up” in the development of strategic weapons, deterrence required another upward spiral in the arms race, at staggering cost, with a corresponding increase in the danger that a failure of deterrence—that is, an outbreak of war—would more or less destroy the world. Grose provides a standard account of the beginning of this intelligence war, when the U-2 spy plane and satellite reconnaissance were brought into play. But about the ceaseless quarreling between the CIA and the Pentagon over the extent and purpose of Soviet military programs, Grose has very little to say. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the discussion grows lethally boring once the central question of suspense—Would the arms race end with destruction of the world or not?—has been resolved by events. But just as important is the fact that White House officials and directors of Central Intelligence for the most part trusted aides to tell them what mattered most—what it would cost to “stay ahead.”

Much has been written about the covert adventuring of the Dulles years, especially the successful overthrow of governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). In both cases the argument for overthrowing them revolved around the danger of “Soviet footholds’ in the Middle East (thus threatening Western oil supplies and the Suez Canal) and Central America (ditto the Panama Canal). But Grose is quick to point out the importance of commercial interests—nationalization of British oil companies by Iran and of banana plantations in Guatemala owned by the United Fruit Company, a client, not incidentally, of the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. These are twice-told tales, but Grose has added new information and unfolded the stories with clarity and dramatic verve.

Also good are Grose’s accounts of the CIA’s bungled attempt to overthrow the government of Indonesia in 1958, which came undone when an American pilot on a secret bombing mission was shot down and captured;* and of the agency’s success in obtaining a copy of Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes. It has long been generally known to have come from the Israelis, but the means by which it did so—through the circle of former Soviet political prisoners close to the Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka—have never been laid out with the detail Grose provides here. And there is much else besides, from Dulles’s deft handling of the Red-hunting forays of Senator Joseph McCarthy, to the slow unfolding of the disaster of the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, which ended Dulles’s career.

Grose has a firm sense of the manner in which the operation to get rid of Castro, started under Eisenhower, cast all doubts aside and grew until it reached behemoth size. The thousand men who went ashore in April 1961 were far too many for the nucleus of a long-term guerrilla army—Fidel Castro himself began with fewer than a score—but far too few to beat Castro’s huge army and militia, backed up by the overwhelming support of the Cuban people. How intelligent men convinced themselves that there was promise in this mad endeavor has been described before, but the disaster offers a lesson about the limits of “covert” action, and Grose tells it well.

With perhaps one exception. It seems to me that Grose has thrown up his hands too soon in his attempt to trace the history of CIA plans to assassinate Castro. This episode has proved unexpectedly difficult for historians, Grose now included, for reasons which have more to do with the public pain of John F. Kennedy’s own murder and the literary energy of the late President’s friends than they do with the inevitably spotty written record. The plots to kill Castro and other foreign leaders were the subject of an entire volume of the Church Committee’s report on intelligence activities in the late 1970s. Just who bears ultimate responsibility for undertaking these efforts, however, the committee never quite spelled out. Kennedy’s colleagues all heatedly denied he had ever approved, or for that matter known about, the efforts to kill Castro; and the Church Committee discovered no hard evidence proving that he did know.

Kennedy’s secretary of defense Robert McNamara neatly laid out the dilemma posed by the record: on the one hand, he told the Church Committee, the CIA was a highly disciplined institution and so far as he knew it had never undertaken a single important measure without proper authority; but on the other hand McNamara certainly knew of no plan to kill Castro and he was morally certain President Kennedy didn’t either. “I just can’t understand how it could have happened,” he said. “I understand the contradiction that this carries with respect to the facts.”

To resolve this contradiction Peter Grose proposes resort to the “Thomas à Becket defense,” prepared for monarchs with tell-tale drops of blood leading to their door and named for the British archbishop murdered in the twelfth century by agents of King Henry II, who had wished aloud for someone to free him of this trouble-some cleric. CIA officers all told the Church Committee that “bad words” like assassination were never uttered in the same sentence with Castro’s name, and that the subject was discussed with high officials in muffled manner, with delicate obliquity and airy circumlocution. “It may well be,” Grose suggests, “that Kennedy, new to the job and confused by Allen’s manner, simply did not understand what Allen thought he was communicating.” In short, it was all a muddle: Kennedy never said do it, and the CIA never went off on its own.

American public life has been agitated by three questions of this kind in the last twenty years: Did Kennedy know about the plots to kill Castro? Did Richard Nixon know about the Watergate cover-up? Did Ronald Reagan know about Iran-contra? Those who find these questions too deeply baffling for mere men to hope to answer will perhaps be content to join Grose, who has elected grace over rigor on this point, and let it go. In fact there is a great deal of evidence about Kennedy’s knowledge of the CIA plots and much of it is not at all ambiguous. If we press the question it is not in order to judge Kennedy but because it tells us two things about the CIA, true about other intelligence services as well, which are fundamental to understanding the agency’s role in American politics.

The first is that the CIA works for the president. The second is that the CIA attempts to keep its covert actions secret. When they become known, effort is made to ensure they cannot be attributed to the United States. When the United States is obviously the author, the CIA protects the president by taking the blame. This is what is meant by “plausible deniability.” But the concept has a flaw. When the CIA has really done something awful on its own, the responding fury of the office of the president is unmistakable and unrestrained. But when the agency is only falling on its sword in time-honored fashion, then the president’s men treat the alleged excess with great gentleness, in the manner of McNamara saying with the sweet candor of a boy next to an empty cookie jar, “I just can’t understand how it could have happened.”

Kennedy was plenty angry about the embarrassing failure at the Bay of Pigs, but he was also man enough to admit he could have said no. Many of his aides wanted to chastise Dulles with a public flogging but Kennedy made a point of treating him with great courtesy, partly because one never burns all bridges to the man who knows your secrets, but also because a sense of personal decency was part of the President’s character. Dulles was so bucked up by Kennedy’s reassurance he allowed himself to hope he might stay on for another couple of years. The decent interval Kennedy had in mind was much shorter. In August, Dulles returned from the White House to tell an assistant, “I’ve been fired.”

Dulles’s life ticked on for another eight years, but his career was over, saving one further episode. After Kennedy was assassinated Dulles was appointed to the Warren Commission to investigate the crime. One of his first acts was to submit to his fellow commissioners a book arguing that American assassins were all lone nuts. It is probable he believed this. It also meant the commission had no need to know about the CIA plots to kill Castro, and Dulles made sure it didn’t.

Allen Dulles did not lack for critics during his decade in power. The best informed were two old friends from the war years, diplomacy, and the Council on Foreign Relations, Robert H. Lovett and David Bruce, both princes of the establishment who were asked to study the CIA’s covert action programs in 1956. The report is still classified but Grose obtained extensive excerpts from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who found a copy in Robert Kennedy’s papers. Far from congratulating Dulles on his success in confounding America’s enemies, the Lovett-Bruce report registers alarm and dismay:

The CIA, busy, monied and privileged, likes its “kingmaking” responsibility… There are always, of course, on record the twin, well-born purposes of “frustrating the Soviets” and keeping others “pro-Western” oriented. Under these, almost any [covert] action can be, and is being, justified…. Should not someone, somewhere in an authoritative position in our government…[be] keeping in mind the long range wisdom of activities which have entailed our virtual abandonment of the international “golden rule,” and which, if successful to the degree claimed for them, are responsible in a great measure for stirring up the turmoil and raising the doubts about us that exist in many countries of the world today?

The well-financed, aggressive, “kingmaking” secret intelligence organization answerable to the president alone, which alarmed Lovett and Bruce, was Allen Dulles’s contribution to the American form of government. Dulles was sometimes called “the great white case officer” for his delight in the tradecraft of spyrunning, but intelligence-gathering of the traditional sort was never the favorite son in Dulles’s CIA. It is doubtful any other intelligence service has ever plunged more deeply into the political affairs of sovereign neighbors, punished enemies more vigorously, paid friends more lavishly, financed secret armies on a bigger scale, given national leaders a greater range of secret political and military weapons than the CIA as it was invented during the Dulles years. Is this why the United States won the cold war?

We might put forward half a dozen plausible answers to this question, none of them a plain yes or no. But the moment for the attempt has not quite arrived; too much still remains unexplored in Russian files. What is clear is that the cold war was a war fought by other means. Principal among them were the arms race itself and the secret war of intelligence operatives and proxy armies. We may question whether this war-that-never-was could have been avoided, or might have been carried out more sensibly, or won more easily or cheaply. These questions will be long debated by the cold war’s many victims. But there is now not much question that the secret war and the cold war were the same thing, and that Allen Dulles did for American intelligence what John Paul Jones did for the American Navy.

This Issue

December 1, 1994