May 24

This Day in History

Cold War

May 24, 1959:

John Foster Dulles dies

After battling cancer for nearly three years, former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles dies. Dulles served as secretary of state from 1953 until shortly before his death in 1959 and was considered one of the primary architects of America's Cold War foreign policy during that period.

Dulles was born in 1888, the son of a Presbyterian minister. President Dwight D. Eisenhower would later joke that the serious Dulles had been preparing to become secretary of state since he was a toddler. This was not far from the truth. Dulles' great-uncle was John W. Foster, who served as secretary of state during the 1890s (and for whom John Foster Dulles was named). His uncle, Robert Lansing, had filled the same position during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Thus, when Eisenhower selected Dulles to be his secretary of state in 1952, he was keeping a family tradition alive. Dulles, however, was not one to merely follow in the footsteps of his famous relatives. He was determined to have an impact on U.S. foreign policy. He brought to his thinking about international relations a strong dose of religion, which often had the effect of simplifying complex issues into contests between good and evil, right and wrong. He was also ferociously anticommunist.

As secretary of state, Dulles was most famous for developing the notion of "massive retaliation." In this theory, Dulles posited that the United States should make it known that it was ready and willing to use its massive nuclear arsenal to retaliate against threats to American interests around the globe. Dulles believed that it would never come to that, since the Soviets, faced with nuclear annihilation, would back away from the "brink" of atomic warfare. The secretary was also well known for his views on Third World neutralism. In Dulles' view, neutralism in the battle against communism was a sin. During his tenure, Dulles saw the United States through several foreign policy crises, including the Suez Crisis of 1956. In 1956, however, it was discovered that Dulles was suffering from lung cancer. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Dulles bravely battled the disease, continuing his work as secretary of state between trips to the hospital for treatment. On April 22, 1959, Dulles resigned his position when he became too weak to fulfill his duties. Christian Herter replaced him as Secretary of State.

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