John Foster Dulles Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Foster Dulles 1888-1959

American statesman.

The United States Secretary of State between the years 1953 and 1959, John Foster Dulles is remembered as a preeminent shaper of American foreign policy in the postwar era. Taking an incontrovertible stance against international communism, calling it a "moral evil," the Republican Dulles is considered one of the early architects of America's decades-long Cold War policy, which envisioned the United States as the protector of freedom and moral bulwark against the spread of Soviet-style communism in the second half of the twentieth century. As Secretary of State Dulles implemented President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "New Look" defense policy, a course of action that called for a shift away from conventional military parity and emphasized technological superiority and the stockpiling of nuclear arms in an effort to deter nuclear war. As a statesman Dulles is also typically associated with the terms "massive retaliation" and "brinkmanship," the former alluding to the U.S. threat of nuclear reprisal against its political and military opponents, the latter referring to Dulles's controversial willingness to steer the nation to the brink of war in order to achieve his diplomatic goals and ultimately ensure peace.

Biographical Information

Dulles was born in Washington, D.C., in 1888, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Both his maternal grandfather, John W. Foster, and his uncle, Robert Lansing, had been Secretaries of State. Dulles spent his childhood in Watertown, New York, and attended public schools until enrolling at Princeton University in 1904. In 1907 he traveled with his grandfather to the Second Hague Peace Conference, an experience that shifted his intentions of becoming a minister toward an interest in international politics. He graduated from Princeton in 1908, then studied for a time at the Sorbonne in Paris. He attended law school at Georgetown University, and upon obtaining his degree in 1911 began working for a New York law firm. Already known as a distinguished international lawyer, Dulles joined President Woodrow Wilson's staff in 1917 to negotiate the Versailles peace treaty at the close of World War I. In the ensuing years Dulles became actively involved in the pursuit of a lasting international peace and outlined his evolving political philosophy in his 1939 monograph War, Peace, and Change. In the 1940s Dulles became Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey's foreign policy adviser. Additionally, Dulles, although a Republican, acted as adviser to the Democratic Truman administration. At the close of World War II in 1945, Dulles was appointed a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco and continued to serve as a delegate to the newly formed organization between 1946 and 1948, and again in 1950 following a brief appointment to the United States Senate. Dulles published his second book on international affairs War or Peace in 1950 and the next year assisted in negotiating the formal peace treaty with Japan. In 1953, shortly after Republican Eisenhower's landslide victory in the 1952 presidential election, Dulles was appointed U.S. Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State Dulles implemented his anticommunist foreign policies wherever possible. He responded to tensions between the Soviet Union and the governments of Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe, including Poland, East Germany, and Hungary. In 1954, after the siege of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu by communist Vietnamese forces, Dulles initiated the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) designed to contain the expansion of communism in that part of the world. In 1954 and 1955 Dulles negotiated with communist China over its bombing of the Nationalist-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu near Formosa (now Taiwan). Using the threat of nuclear retaliation, Dulles ordered communist China to cease its shelling of the islands—an interruption in hostilities that prevailed for several years until Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev countered Dulles's tactic with a promise to respond with his nation's own nuclear weapons. In 1956 Dulles supported a United Nations cease-fire in Egypt, thwarting a combined British, French, and Israeli attack on the government of Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser over contested international rights to the Suez Canal. Attempting to check European colonialism and prevent a large-scale war between the West and the radical nationalist Nasser, Dulles emerged on the side of successful negotiators who sought to place the canal under the control of the United Nations. Diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1958, Dulles was compelled to resign his post as Secretary of State in April of 1959 due to severe illness. He died on 24 May 1959.

Major Works

Dulles's literary corpus consists primarily of two political monographs and several essays which explore the subject of international relations and the state of foreign policy from the early World War II era to the time of his death in 1959. In his first book, War, Peace, and Change, Dulles enumerated his political philosophy—based in large part upon a Wilsonian belief in the necessity of a worldwide community of nations to mediate foreign policy and promote international peace and understanding. Such later essays as "A Righteous Faith for a Just and Durable Peace" (1942) and The Six Pillars of Peace (1943) emphasize Dulles's belief in the moral foundations of foreign policy, whereas "Thoughts on Soviet Foreign Policy and What to Do About It" (1946) makes explicit his strongly anticommunist views and his goals to counter Soviet expansion throughout the world. In his second book, War or Peace, Dulles evaluated the early stages of Cold War foreign policy and specifically attacked President Harry S Truman's policy of "containment" toward the Soviet Union, arguing that such a strategy is insufficient to combat the growing menace of communism.

Critical Reception

Both during and after his tenure as U.S. Secretary of State Dulles was regarded as a controversial figure in international politics. His reputation among European leaders suffered in large part from his unbending anticommunism and unwillingness to negotiate with the Soviet Union, a policy that historians observe fueled the Cold War in the 1950s. After Dulles's death, scholars have noted, U.S. policies shifted somewhat away from the Secretary's often dogmatic and moralistic pronouncements, emphasizing both military disarmament and improved relations with the Soviet Union, communist China, and the Third World. In more recent years, historians have also attempted to reevaluate the simplified and to a degree stereotypical portrayal of Dulles as single-minded in his Christianity, Republicanism, and hatred of communism. Commentators have since offered more balanced appraisals of the private and public Dulles. Likewise, many critics have examined Dulles's relationship with President Eisenhower in an attempt to uncover the true extent to which Dulles may be said to have dominated U. S. foreign policy during the Eisenhower administration.