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Biographies: John Foster Dulles

John Foster Dulles, born on February 25, 1888, is known today primarily for his tenure as secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He constructed many elements of U.S. Cold War policy and initiatives, such as the Japanese Peace Treaty and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Dulles came from a long line of distinguished government officers, including his uncle by marriage, Robert Lansing, secretary of state for Woodrow Wilson. His maternal grandfather, John Watson Foster, was secretary of state under Benjamin Harrison. Seeking to follow in the footsteps of his distinguished relatives, Dulles attended Princeton and George Washington universities and the Sorbornne. In 1911, he entered law practice in New York and engaged in several quasi-diplomatic missions to the second Hague Peace Conference of 1907, and the Versailles Peace Conference, 1918-1919.

In the late 1930s, Dulles’ religious feelings quickened, and he came to believe in a combination of international “institutional mechanisms” and the Christian gospel as an antidote to war and unrest. In 1940, he chaired the Commission on A Just and Durable Peace for the Federal Council of Churches. By the end of World War II, Dulles had become recognized as a leading Republican spokesman on foreign policy issues, and served on several bipartisan delegations.

In 1948, Dulles was widely touted as the next secretary of state in the “new Dewey administration,” a forecast upset by that November’s election of President Harry S. Truman. Further disappointment was in store when he lost his bid for re-election as a Senator from New York, for a seat to which he had been appointed to fill out the term of the late Senator Robert E Wagner Sr. He then returned to writing and authored War or Peace in 1950, a critical assessment of the American containment policy then in much favor among the more sophisticated in the Washington/New York foreign policy establishment.

Despite Dulles’ his Far East policy, appointed him as special representative to negotiate a treaty of peace with Japan. Dulles completed this task with skill and dispatch. He not only negotiated peace with Japan (which hardly had much say in the matter at the time), but also sorted out equitably the disposition of the lands conquered by the Japanese in World War II. He further saw to it that although the Soviet Union retained the Kuril Islands and southern Sakhalin, the U.S. continued to exercise control over the Ryukyu, Bonin, Marianas, and Caroline islands and maintained military base rights in Japan and Okinawa. Domestically, Dulles proved effective in convincing the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the necessity for giving up control of Japan. (The JCS apparently had plans secretly to rearm the Japanese.)

Dulles enthusiastically supported Truman’s decision to intervene in the Korean War, a support that appeared in print a mere five days after the North Korean invasion. Typically, Dulles termed Truman’s decision as “courageous, righteous and in the national interest” in his New York Times article characteristically entitled “To Save Humanity from the Deep Abyss.” But by 1952, Dulles was just as characteristically denouncing Truman’s containment policy as “negative, futile and immoral.”

With his impeccable Republican credentials and his triumph in negotiating the Japanese peace treaty, Dulles was the inevitable choice by Eisenhower as secretary of state. The two soon forged a close personal bond, although the president frequently felt constrained to moderate his secretary’s more perfervid evulsions. Although both called publicly for the “roll back” of Communism, and the “liberation” of those held captive by its “despotism and godless terrorism,” Eisenhower cautioned his secretary of state to add the phrase “by all peaceful means.” Alas, there was to be no roll back or liberation, and the new administration settled for a near-status quo antebellum truce in Korea, and later did nothing except protest the Soviet crushing of Hungary’s attempt to liberate itself from communism.

The new Eisenhower administration is credited generally with ending the Korean War by quietly letting the Communists know that it was seriously contemplating an extension of the war and even the use of nuclear weapons. Here was an early example of that “brinksmanship” that was to prove so controversial a part of Dulles’ dealings with the Soviet Union as secretary of state. But the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin in March 1953, seems to have had much to do with weakening Communist resolution to continue the struggle.

Dulles and Eisenhower in some ways proved as tough with their ROK ally as with the Communists. As ROK President Syngman Rhee planned to sabotage the truce talks at Panmunjom, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with Dulles’ compliance, drew up a contingency plan to overthrow Rhee if this were deemed necessary to keep the truce talks going.

Dulles retained the respect and affection of Eisenhower to the end of his life. He never moderated his moral anti-Communism, and claimed to be perfectly willing to “go to the brink” of nuclear war to demonstrate America’s resolution against Communist aggression. But he seemed to lack a sure touch in dealing with non-Communist Third World nationalism. He revealed little understanding of the roots of poverty and the sense of injustice that so often aided the rise to power of Third World demagogues of whom he did not approve. Dulles attempted to arrive at solutions for their unrest through Christian principles, seemingly perpetual travel, military aid and a treaty or pact committing the United States. Although the American public seemed to agree wholeheartedly with Dulles’ anti-Communism, he was hardly an endearing figure with his grim appearance accentuated by his dark clothing, his lugubrious expressions, and his forebodings of the near future. A jibe of the time gave the declension of the adjective “dull” as “Dull, Duller, Dulles.”

John Foster Dulles died on May 24, 1959, after a long and courageous struggle with cancer. 

Barbara Peterson

Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (1969). 
Devine, Michael J. “The Diplomacy of Righteousness: The Legacy of John W. Foster,” in Kenneth W Thompson, ed., Traditions and Values: American Diplomacy, 1945 to the Present (1984). 
Dulles, Foster Rhea. America’s Rise to World Power, 1898-1954 (1955). 
Gerson, Louis L. “John Foster Dulles” in Robert Ferrell, ed. The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, 17 (1967). 
Gould-Adams, Richard. The Time of Power: A Reappraisal of John Foster Dulles
Guhin, Michael A. John Foster Dulles: A Statesman and His Times (1972). 
Hoopes, Townsend. The Devil and John Foster Dulles (1973). 
John Foster Dulles Oral History Project, Princeton University.

Reprinted with permission from The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.