It is man's nature to search the past for might-have-beens, paths not taken which if followed might have prevented tragedy and made the present safer. If only the United States had been blessed with Presidents of stature in the 1850s. . . . If only Britain and France had refused to tolerate Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936. . . .

No historian of recent events can resist the temptation to play this serious game and thereby to offer advice, explicit or implicit, to those making decisions about the present and future. Everyone who forms any views about the past's relevance to the present is acting as historian-advocate. Sometimes this process improves the quality of policy. Too often-as Ernest R. May has just underlined-it leads to disaster.1 The outcome depends on how well the observer understands the past and respects the differences between past and present. Indeed, so strong is the human desire to find quick, easy lessons that the historian's responsibility is frequently to demonstrate the lessons that history does not teach rather than the ones it does.

Townsend Hoopes' long and beautifully written The Devil and John Foster Dulles2 is pervaded by a poignant sense of might-have-been. The book says, in effect, if only Dulles had not been Secretary of State then President Eisenhower's instinctive desire to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union might have brought an early end to the cold war, reduced the level of bloody tragedy in the Middle East, created a lasting settlement in Indochina (thus heading off the American war in Vietnam), and prevented damaging strains to the Atlantic alliance.

Hoopes supports his argument with the most thorough research undertaken by any author writing about Dulles (and there have been many-some worshipfully hagiographical, some superficial, some violently polemical). He has made excellent use of the Dulles papers at Princeton University, the extensive transcribed interviews of the Dulles Oral History project at Princeton, additional interviews which he conducted with many of Dulles' closest associates, and the best books and articles on American foreign policy during the Dulles-Eisenhower years. Hoopes' own experience in the Pentagon in the Truman and Johnson administrations gives the book a texture of reality usually absent from the work of authors without direct experience in government. For these reasons The Devil and John Foster Dulles will be widely read and probably accepted for years to come as the authoritative work on Dulles, supplanting the studies by Louis L. Gerson (1968) and Michael A. Guhin (1972).3 One need not agree with Hoopes' assumption that Dulles personally made a large, deplorable and lasting difference in the direction of American policy in order to appreciate the excellence of the portrait of the Secretary of State's character, ideas, and policies.

At another level one can agree with most of Hoopes' specific criticism of Dulles' behavior, but not agree with his analysis of the sources of that behavior or the degree to which it was peculiar to Dulles himself rather than to general tendencies in American foreign policy which far transcended the influence of any single man. The issue is important. It touches not only the classic question of the influence of individual men versus broad forces in society, but also the particular question of where to locate turning points in the cold war. Specifically, were there any significant differences between the Truman and Eisenhower administrations?


The Devil and John Foster Dulles opens with a long account of the future Secretary of State's childhood in remote Watertown, N.Y.; hardworking but drab years as an undergraduate at Princeton; apprenticeship in diplomacy to grandfather John Foster, a former Secretary of State, at the Second Hague Conference (1907); law training at George Washington University while living in his grandfather's Washington home; employment with Sullivan and Cromwell (thanks to his grandfather's intercession); service during World War I on a delicate mission to Latin America, with the War Trade Board, and at the Paris Peace Conference where he was deeply involved with the controversial reparation issue; his rapid rise to the top position in Sullivan and Cromwell; marriage and family life; on the eve of World War II, heavy involvement as a Protestant lay leader in questions of war, peace, and morality; and his participation in studies looking toward the formation of the United Nations.

The broad biographical outline is familiar, but the account is filled with fresh and illuminating details. Their selection and arrangement present a picture of an almost frighteningly ambitious man, seizing early in life on the ultimate goal of becoming Secretary of State, carefully calculating every step of his career, developing simultaneously the skills of a ruthless legal tactician and deeply held but simplistic moral convictions, associating with the high and mighty but making no effort to get to know the young associates in his law firm, neglecting his children, and accepting without question the complete subordination of his wife's life to his own career. It is not an attractive picture, and Hoopes misses no opportunity to make it as vivid as possible and to relate every aspect to what he considers the great flaws which Dulles later exhibited as Secretary of State. For example, he quotes with relish a 1942 entry from the diary of Sir Alexander Cadogan describing a luncheon in Anthony Eden's flat: "J. F. Dulles there. . . . J.F.D. the woolliest type of useless pontificating American. . . . Heaven help us!"

Next come a group of chapters on Dulles' association with the Truman administration as a consultant, symbol of bipartisan foreign policy as a delegate to Council of Foreign Ministers meetings, and as special ambassador conducting with great skill the intricate negotiations of the Japanese Peace Treaty and related agreements. Hoopes accurately portrays Dulles as more flexible before 1953 than after-and less the moral absolutist in his attitudes toward Russia and communism.

He could have done more to develop this point. Take, for example, Dulles' views on Communist China. In 1949 the remnant of the Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan. The People's Republic was proclaimed in Peking on October 1, 1949. There followed an intense debate within the Truman administration, the Congress, and the press over whether or not the United States should recognize the Communist regime as the government of China. Although Secretary of State Acheson had an open mind on the question, he was in no hurry-especially while Peking continued to denounce the United States and to mistreat Americans (most notably Angus Ward, Consul General in Mukden, who suffered months of house arrest). The right wing of the Republican Party, however, condemned any hint of recognition as unspeakably immoral.

While the recognition controversy was raging, Dulles wrote War or Peace,4 his second and best book. On China he said: "If the Communist government of China in fact proves its ability to govern China without serious domestic resistance, then it, too, should be admitted to the United Nations. However, a regime that claims to have become the government of a country through civil war should not be recognized until it has been tested over a reasonable period of time." This is a routine restatement of traditional American recognition doctrine, but it was, at the time, a controversial position, more liberal than anything Secretary of State Acheson had said in public. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 and the Chinese entrance into the war in November hardened Dulles' views on China, just as those events hardened the views of most American leaders. When, during the political campaign of 1952, Dulles criticized the Truman administration for once holding views which he had held himself, the targets of his attacks understandably felt bitter toward him.

Dulles as Secretary of State was without doubt a rigid man, obsessed with communism, insensitive to diversity within the Communist world, distrustful of the Russians on all occasions, fearful of real negotiation. From the perspective of 1973 the differences between Truman-Acheson and Dulles appear more rhetorical than real. Their views did shift in response to external events and internal political opinion, but the shifts occurred at nearly the same time. Even on the rhetorical side Truman and Acheson often were as grimly ideological in their public speeches as Dulles was in his. The difference often came down to a catch phrase-"massive retaliation," "liberation," going to "the brink"-remembered and endlessly repeated from a Dulles speech and not from Truman or Acheson.

Hoopes suggests that Dulles wanted so much to be Secretary of State and to wield maximum power that he deliberately truckled to the right wing of the Republican Party in both his administrative and substantive policies-on the one hand refusing to protect Foreign Service officers unjustly accused of being security risks, and on the other hand adopting an excessively antagonistic posture toward Russia and China in order to strengthen domestic political support. There is some truth in this, although such motivation was but a minute part of Dulles' thinking and is not an essential element required to explain his behavior. He was very conscious of the political attacks launched from Congress against Acheson and determined to avoid being attacked in similar fashion himself, but he exaggerated (as does Hoopes) the degree to which political unpopularity in Congress reduced Acheson's effectiveness as Secretary of State.

The most basic explanation of Dulles' behavior is not to be found in the quirks of his personality, nor in the partisan domestic politics of the 1950s, but rather in attitudes held by an entire generation of American leaders, attitudes based on a shared conception of the role of the United States in world affairs since 1917. Dulles, like Acheson and Truman, was a qualified admirer of Woodrow Wilson. They accepted Wilson's vision of the United States as the moral and political leader of the world. They believed that "freedom" would perish without that leadership. They deplored the rejection by the American Senate and people of the Wilsonian vision of an active American foreign policy with membership in the League of Nations and they saw Wilson's political bungling as a partial cause. They believed that the withdrawal of the United States from any sense of responsibility for world security led directly to military totalitarianism in Europe and Asia and made World War II inevitable. They believed that the application of American power to the defeat of Germany and Japan was necessary, although Dulles came to this belief more slowly after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 than did Acheson.

They shared the exhilarating experience of total war against Nazi Germany and the consciousness of American invincibility that came with victory. They saw Hitler, correctly, as totally evil. They perceived him, incorrectly, as the model of all hostile, totalitarian leaders. The transfer of attitudes acquired during the confrontation with Hitler to the conflict with the Soviet Union took place during and was itself a cause of the outbreak of the cold war. The entry of Communist China into the Korean War late in 1950 brought Peking and Moscow together in the American mind even more solidly than the Axis alliance of 1940 had brought Berlin and Tokyo together.

Dulles' rhetoric about the utter depravity of communism may have reflected a personal obsession, but then most of American leadership was similarly obsessed. Dulles could not accept the idea of negotiation with the devil. Neither could Acheson. Both approached relations with the Soviet Union as a zero-sum game. A gain in power for the United States was good. A gain for the Soviet Union was bad. An outcome of any issue that was advantageous to both sides was hard to imagine. Acheson's mind was far subtler than Dulles'. He could see further into the ramifications of any action than his successor, he was more sensitive to the problems of allies, less expectant of quick and easy success. But in all essentials Dulles carried on the Truman-Acheson policies without change.

Hoopes writes that "None of Dulles's actions was to bring forth a darker harvest than his refusal to allow United States policy to support or even countenance a diplomatic settlement of the French colonial war in Indochina in the period from 1954 to 1956." Who can disagree with this broad conclusion or with the detailed account of how Dulles failed to understand the internal and anti-colonial roots of the conflict, seeing only the hideous specter of "Communist aggression"? But to say that the tragedy of Indochina, and America, since 1956 is the harvest of Dulles' actions is to ignore the fact that his perceptions of Indochina were little different from those entertained by Acheson, Truman, and most of their advisers in 1952. They, too, were contemptuous of the idea that the Vietminh could be fighting primarily for independence and not as pawns in a worldwide program of Communist aggression. They, too, failed to understand the difficulties the French were facing and they, too, failed to devise an agreed program of "united action" for the United States, the United Kingdom and France. If the Truman administration had still been in office in the spring of 1954, it is quite possible that the United States would have sent planes and even troops to aid the besieged garrison at Dien Bien Phu-thus accelerating heavy American involvement in the war by nearly a decade.

Of course, Dulles also wanted to have the United States save Dien Bien Phu. Hoopes agrees with other writers and shows clearly that the decision not to go to war was made by President Eisenhower, acting with quiet good sense on a military question where he could exercise irrefutable authority. But Eisenhower did not challenge Dulles' rigidly negative and obstructive approach to the Geneva conference and its ill-fated accords.


President Eisenhower, whose reputation for sagacity in foreign affairs has been rising steadily among historians in the last half-dozen years, is the feeble, tragic hero of the book. A compromiser, a skeptic about the efficacy of armed forces as an instrument of policy, equally skeptical of the argument that the Russians were immune to reason, a humanitarian who felt instinctively that men of goodwill on both sides could mitigate the threat of war and the burden of armaments, Eisenhower tried on several occasions to make a fresh new approach to the Soviet leadership. He would give a dramatic speech. Hearts would lift. Editorials would be filled with praise. Foreign governments would send congratulations. And nothing more would happen. Cold-war diplomacy under the direction of Secretary of State Dulles would continue as before and with President Eisenhower's apparent uncritical acceptance. Why? The answer, says Hoopes, is to be found in Dulles' stamina and determination to impose his view of the world on American foreign policy. He could not directly oppose the President. But he could outwork him and use his seemingly limitless knowledge to explain why dramatic peace initiatives had to be followed slowly, cautiously.

An anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, has been told about Eisenhower's opinion of Dulles. At a time when Dulles had been widely criticized for attempting to monopolize the conduct of foreign policy, President Eisenhower happened to be meeting informally with a group of newspaper publishers. "Gentlemen," the President said, "I know that many harsh things have been said about Foster Dulles. But I want all of you to think deeply and give me the name of one man better qualified to conduct the foreign policy of the United States." The President looked around the room. Silence. Then with a smile he said, "I know the answer," and pointed to himself. The story illustrates the truth that Eisenhower considered himself, as every President should, responsible for foreign policy. But the day-to-day reality was that he lacked the power of sustained concentration to develop his own comprehensive views in competition with those of Dulles. His rare initiatives were like flowers blooming for a day after rain in the desert. He could and did restrain his Secretary of State's dangerous inclinations on specific occasions sufficiently to avoid war. But, as Hoopes sees those years, Dulles' "strident approach to nearly every crisis weakened the trust and support of allies and led at times to the almost total diplomatic isolation of the United States."

Despite Hoopes' admiration for the foreign policies of the Truman administration, the essence of his unremitting critique of John Foster Dulles is that his rigid and negative diplomacy prevented constructive change. But how much fundamental change could have been effected in the 1950s? It is significant that when the Eisenhower administration came to an end and John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency in 1960, the Democrats criticized the outgoing regime far more for alleged military weakness in the face of the enemy ("the missile gap") than for failing to develop opportunities to negotiate. The Kennedy administration began with an ambivalent approach, but until the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 its tone and character was far closer to the interventionism of the Truman administration and the ideological vehemence of Dulles than it was to the spirit of accommodation which Hoopes correctly associates with Eisenhower.

It satisfies our sense of the dramatic to believe that one man made a crucial difference in the course of history. Sometimes, although rarely, this is true. Hoopes believes it was true in the case of Dulles. A stronger case can be made, however, that Dulles-his personal idiosyncrasies notwithstanding-was as much a reflection of his times and of dominant attitudes among American leaders such as Truman, Acheson, or the emphatic cold-warrior approach of the first phase of the Kennedy administration.


1 "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

2 Boston: Atlantic/Little Brown, 1973.

3 John Foster Dulles, New York: Cooper Square, 1968; John Foster Dulles: A Statesman and His Times, New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

4 New York: Macmillan, 1950.

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