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
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