(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

British journalist-biographer Leonard Mosley has produced a triple biography of John Foster, Eleanor, and Allen Dulles that meets a definite need. The lengthy text is anecdotal and occasionally humorous, but lacking in analytical insight. Some sections are trite and boring while historical inaccuracies—for example, that Stalingrad fell during World War II—are annoying. On the whole, the biography is worth reading because it presents an engaging group portrait of the three siblings and reveals the character flaws that led to the Dulles brothers’ foreign policy miscalculations during the early part of the Cold War period.

Mosley clearly dislikes John Foster, a self-righteous, self-serving father figure for the triad. He describes how Foster (as Mosley calls him) sacrificed family, friends, and colleagues to protect his career. To avert charges of nepotism when he was first made Secretary of State, he even tried to force Eleanor out of her Berlin desk job. Foster also helped Allen and Eleanor, but always from a position of dominance. Since Allen owed Foster his job at the prestigious Sullivan and Cromwell law firm, he was forced to endorse Thomas E. Dewey for President in the 1940’s against his will. Seldom were Foster’s views defied.

The brothers had long careers in diplomatic service before their pinnacle appointments in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Administration where Foster formulated U.S. foreign policy and where Allen made the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) his personal domain. Eleanor, though the most human and possibly the most brilliant member of the group, never attained more than a middle level desk officer’s job in the State Department. Mosley states that she was thwarted in her ambitions because of her sex, a fact that she rebelled against all her life. It is too bad that Mosley devotes the least attention to her life and achievements, since of the three she exhibited the most depth of character and the greatest involvement with different social groups.

The early life of the trio has been popularly re-created with a heavy reliance on Eleanor’s reminiscences, since she is the only surviving member who could be interviewed. The picture that emerges is that of a disciplined, austere home life where children were taught to suppress emotions and mask physical weaknesses. With their sisters, Margaret and Nataline, the three were reared to be strict Presbyterians by their minister father and proud mother, daughter of a former Secretary of State. Foster, the eldest, was the most stoic and cruel. However, behind composed veneers, they all were subject to physical problems. Allen suffered terribly from gout which was linked to a birth defect: he was born with a club foot (a family secret). Mosley is successful in presenting Foster, Allen, and Eleanor as basically very volatile people. The other two Dulles sisters receive little attention, so the reader is limited in judging the emotional interplay within the entire family network. Mosley’s scope is not as wide as his title indicates.

The narrative opens dramatically on a party scene at the Allen Dulles home on Christmas Eve, 1968, where the ill and retired head of the CIA is merely “the man upstairs” whose presence is not missed by the partygoers or his wife. This sets the tone for what is essentially a depressing biography, despite its inherent historical interest.

Bound by a belief that they could help shape American history, the trio held many reunions in spite of frequent squabbles stemming from deep personality differences. Mosley finds the greatest contrast between the two brothers. Foster was the cool, detached statesman who alienated colleagues, while Allen was the sophisticated and popular bon vivant. Whereas Foster was faithful to his wife, Allen was notoriously unfaithful to his. In addition, religion played a key role in Foster’s decisions, while Allen was motivated by adventure. Foster despised the British and Allen admired them. Moreover, Foster was the more opportunistic and self-centered. When Senator Joseph McCarthy subpoened members of the State Department to testify concerning charges of Communism, Foster did nothing to protect his subordinates. Allen, to the contrary, refused to throw...

(The entire section is 1738 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, July, 1978, p. 748.

Critic. XXXVII, July 15, 1978, p. 6.

Economist. CCLXVIII, July 8, 1978, p. 99.

Spectator. CCXLI, July 8, 1978, p. 140.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIV, Autumn, 1978, p. 140.