John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) was a powerful U.S. secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Born into a family of statesmen, Dulles became an international lawyer for a Wall Street firm and attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as part of the Reparations Commission and Economic Council. He negotiated the Japanese peace treaty in the early 1950s as a consultant to President Harry S. Truman, but later became a vocal critic of the administration’s foreign policy. Named secretary of state in 1953, Dulles was known for a strong stance against communism and his management of the crises of Suez, Indochina and Lebanon.
Dulles, grandson of one secretary of state (John Foster) and nephew of another (Robert Lansing), served Dwight D. Eisenhower in that capacity from January 1953 until his death, from cancer, in 1959. An international lawyer and senior partner in the prestigious Wall Street firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, he built a modest reputation in the twenties as an authority on the tangled issue of Allied war debts and German reparations. Long an unreconstructed Wilsonian, Dulles opposed American involvement in Europe in the thirties on the grounds that the victors of 1919 had ignored Woodrow Wilson’s call for ‘peaceful change’ and sought only to preserve the harsh features of the Versailles settlement.
Dulles emerged during World War II as the principal lay spokesman for the Federal Council of Churches in its effort to promote the proposed United Nations. But at the same time, as a protÃ©gÃ© of New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, he was also emerging as a leading proponent of the foreign policy views of the eastern wing of the Republican party. Senator Arthur Vandenberg and he were the architects of postwar bipartisan foreign policy. By the late forties he was a Republican adviser, and later consultant, to the Truman administration and in that capacity negotiated the Japanese peace treaty in 1950-1951.
But by 1952 partisanship and policy differences led him to become one of Harry S. Truman’s and Dean Acheson’s most acerbic critics, especially on Far Eastern policy. His well-publicized article in Life magazine condemned the containment policy of the Truman administration as merely a negative attempt to restrain Soviet expansionism and demanded a new policy of boldness that would restore the initiative to the United States. During the 1952 campaign he called stridently not only for the ‘rollback’ of Soviet gains in Eastern Europe but also for the ‘unleashing’ of Chiang Kai-shek.
As secretary of state Dulles was often portrayed as the stern Presbyterian moralist who made speeches condemning atheistic communism and threatening massive retaliation. For many historians he was the very model of the ‘cold warrior,’ a reductionist whose rhetoric intensified the ideological gulf between East and West. Moreover, since Eisenhower was perceived as a chief executive who reigned but did not govern, Dulles was regarded as the architect of American foreign policy.
Later it became evident that Eisenhower was an activist and that his foreign policy was a joint creation, not simply the work of his secretary of state. Declassified documents, moreover, indicated that Dulles was far more complex and flexible than previously thought. He considered the possibility of genuine negotiations with the Soviets, recognized the process of change in post-Stalinist Russia, did not always regard neutrality as immoral, and, above all, was prudent and cautious on atomic issues. Despite the campaign rhetoric of 1952, he, in effect, accepted the underlying postulates of containment, and his stewardship of American foreign policy deserves to be remembered more for what it preserved from the Truman-Acheson heritage than for its innovations. And despite the furor over massive retaliation and the crises over Suez, Dien Bien Phu, and Lebanon, Dulles was adept at crisis management and presided over a six-year period during which the United States was, at least technically, at peace.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.