John Foster Dulles – Master Craftsman, Man of Paradox
President Dwight Eisenhower appointed John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State in January 1953, a job he held until almost the end of the decade. Dulles’ firm friendship with the President gave him direct access to the Oval Office; he got access to the Central Intelligence Agency through his brother, Allen Dulles, then CIA director. During Dulles’ tenure, the U.S. secured international security agreements, reduced American troop numbers and weapons production, and contained the spread of communism. The State Department also initiated its first press conferences.
Dulles could be a controversial and polarizing figure. Some commended his stance against communism, while others criticized his policies of massive retaliation and brinkmanship. There were those who felt threatened by his presence, while many admired him as a devoted public servant, hardworking and committed to President Eisenhower.
The following excerpts give a sense of the disparate views of John Foster Dulles, as eight who worked with him recall their impressions of the Secretary during his tenure at the State Department:
Douglas Dillon, who prepared speeches for Thomas Dewey’s nomination campaign and worked with John Foster Dulles on the campaign in 1948, was interviewed Robert D. Shulzinger in April 1987. William H. Gleysteen, Jr. served in the Executive Secretariat at the State Department from 1951-1955. Thomas Stern interviewed him in June 1997.
David S. Smith was Special Assistant to John Foster Dulles from 1953-1954. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May 1989. Eugene Bird was a Rockefeller intern in the Office of Personnel at State from 1953-1955. He was interviewed by Kennedy in January 1994.
Frances Knight served as the Director of the Passport Office from 1955-1977. Kennedy interviewed her in June 1987. Richard Parker served as the Israel/Jordan Desk Officer from 1956-1959, and was interviewed by Kennedy in April 1989.
Ambassador Marshall Green served as the Regional Planning Advisor for the Far East working in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs from 1956-1960. He wrote the memoir, Evolution of U.S.-China Policy 1956-1957: Memoir of an Insider. Archer K. Blood served in the Executive Secretariat from 1956-1962. He was interviewed by Henry Precht in June 1989.
Read about how he responded to the Taiwan Straits Crises.
“Eisenhower knew he was very good”
Douglas Dillon, Speechwriter for Dewey’s presidential campaign, 1948; later U.S. Ambassador to France and Secretary of the Treasury
DILLON (seen at left): My father had been a good friend of Foster Dulles– used him as a lawyer, I guess– Sullivan and Cromwell. And so Foster Dulles was aware of my interest in politics, and he was very interested in the Dewey campaign [in 1940], and I went and helped him raise money for that in New Jersey. That was when [dark horse candidate who became the 1940 Republican nominee for President, Wendell] Willkie overwhelmed things. I went to that convention.
In 1944 I was out in the Pacific with the Navy, but then when we came back, in 1948, I also worked with Foster Dulles on the nominating campaign. When Dewey was nominated, Mr. Dulles asked me, along with a couple of other people, who I’ll mention in a minute, to work with him in preparing foreign policy speeches that Dewey might give during the campaign.
He had an office in the Roosevelt Hotel and his chief assistant was his brother, Allen Dulles. The next person down the ladder was [Massachusetts Representative, later Secretary of State] Christian Herter, and the next one was me, and the youngest one was McGeorge Bundy [Council on Foreign Relations, later National Security Advisor under Kennedy and Johnson]. So we had quite a group. We worked and wrote a lot of speeches for Mr. Dulles. He liked them, and he gave them to Dewey to deliver, but Dewey didn’t deliver any of them because he thought they were too strong and too controversial.
Dewey was also being advised by Senator [Arthur] Vandenberg [R-Michigan, who helped with the creation of the United Nations], who felt that he should not upset the Democrats because after he was elected, he would be able to deal much better with them in the Senate if he hadn’t been too strong, so he followed that advice.
I worked for two months there very closely, every day with Foster Dulles. So he knew me and my interests and what he thought of my capacity, I guess, in this area…
Dulles had nothing directly to do with [Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential] campaign — although Eisenhower knew he was very good. After Eisenhower was elected, very early on, he turned to Dulles and asked him to be Secretary of State. That was in mid-November . I think it was early December when I got a telephone call from Mr. Dulles, who was working at the Commodore Hotel.
I went there and had lunch with him, and he asked me if I would be interested in being Ambassador to France. He told me at that time that the President-elect had, in effect, given him the right to nominate — to suggest– one person for one of the major embassies. The President had reserved for himself the other two or three major posts.
Foster Dulles was always particularly interested in France, because he had studied there as a youth, and his wife had been there, and they had gotten together there, and he had a real understanding and love of France.
So he was interested in that, and he thought I could do the job. This was a surprise for me because I was so young for that– at that time I was 42 years old.
“Dulles’ mannerisms were remarkably unattractive”
William H. Gleysteen, Jr., Executive Secretariat, 1951-1955
GLEYSTEEN: I had an interesting reaction to Dulles. First of all, I had a slightly worshipful — probably somewhat excessive–view of [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson that may have made me more severe than justified in my judgment of his successor.
Secondly, my newspaper acquaintance with Dulles before he became Secretary was of a man of baffling contradiction. While visiting Korea in 1950 before the outbreak of the Korean War he seemed to demonstrate commendable caution about the danger of South Korean provocative actions, yet he later appeared to have become a hawk in suggesting we use nuclear weapons to break the military stalemate. Whatever the facts, I worried that he was a hardliner.
Lastly, Dulles’ mannerisms were remarkably unattractive; he was not a polished figure like his brother Allen. John Foster was physically clumsy — he was tall and gangly; he was abrupt; he didn’t pay much attention to his surroundings; he was very demanding of people. So my first impression of Dulles was rather negative, the views of a fairly “liberal” anti-communist Democrat working in a very Republican administration.
But I generally measure people on how they perform, and over time, and my opinion of Dulles rose measurably. Initially, I feared he was an adventurer; he sided with the military in several debates concerning the development and use of nuclear weapons. In the Secretary’s and Deputy Secretary’s offices during meetings and phone conversations I listened to the arguments dealing with China; I was appalled.
Bedell Smith, a fine soldier and good deputy, also disappointed me by siding with Dulles. Fortunately, President Eisenhower had the sense to toss out an almost unanimous State and Defense recommendation to use nuclear weapons. This aspect of Dulles jolted me, but as time went on, my anxieties diminished.
I came to see Dulles as a very hard worker. He was not so ideological that he turned deaf ears to important information. He listened to people. Although it was not easy to see him, once you got to him, your views would get an airing. I think Dulles acted on a fairly broad spectrum of information and views. Periodically he would return to his menacing “Cold Warrior” style, but President Eisenhower seemed to balance that off very well.
My opinion of Dulles was more favorable at the end of my tour than it was at the beginning. Dulles barely recognized my presence; he was very impersonal to all. He knew I was a member of his outer staff and treated me decently. I dealt mostly with him through [his administrative assistant] Rod[erick] O’Connor, with whom I had a very good relationship.
“I was never in the office when the President disagreed with him”
David S. Smith, Special Assistant to Dulles, 1953-1954
SMITH: I regarded him as a really dedicated man. I occasionally had lunch with him. It was his custom to have lunch alone or with one person in his office as often as he could. His usual fare for lunch was a raw apple, which he peeled slowly, and a small dish of cottage cheese, which to a young man was pretty amazing. I had a good, full appetite and liked a three-course meal, but that was what he usually had for lunch.
He usually arrived about 8:00 every morning and stayed in the office until he took a shower about 6:00 and changed either to a black tie or white tie to go to some diplomatic function.
He was just an extremely hard-driving, aesthetic, devoted public servant. One thing that impressed me tremendously was that he never took any important action without picking up the white telephone at his desk and calling the President and describing it to the President and giving his recommendation for an outcome and asking the President’s decision. I never was in the office when the President disagreed with him.
I didn’t hear the other end of the conversation, but I had the impression that the President usually said, “Well, that’s fine, Foster. Let’s go ahead as you suggest.” But at least I was very impressed. It was a lesson to a young man on how to keep a good relationship going for eight years, or nearly eight until he died, that he was scrupulous always to keep the President fully informed and totally briefed on any important matter….
Mr. Dulles was a lifelong, well-trained lawyer who was extremely knowledgeable about diplomatic history, American history and foreign policy. He was also a very devout Christian and a very serious, thoughtful man and certainly made every effort to be just.
Of course, there was the impact of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and I think every thinking person regarded him as having considerable power. Mr. Dulles certainly never espoused the idea “Let’s run the rascals out!” There were certain individuals, of course, who were brought to his attention as people that he had to cope with [because of] the background that they had built up.
“I’ve already spoken to President Eisenhower about you, and I think he has something in mind for you”
He did take into the Department — possibly it was a mistake, but under the pressure of two or three other leading, extremely conservative senators – Scott McLeod and a couple of others who certainly were extremely conservative Republicans and who certainly caused him hours of concern over matters that were brought to the Secretary’s attention. Some of those people had very long security files.
I remember seeing one that was three or four piles of papers that were each about four feet high, of their background materials and reports, of course, unsubstantiated reports of incidents. Under pressure of people like Senator McCarthy, the Secretary felt he had to give very serious thought to what to do.
I must say, he never took any action on any of those cases without giving it a great many hours of time he would have preferred devoting to foreign policy. As you know, personnel can be an extremely time-consuming matter, and he was a very serious and just man who tried to deal with these matters in the way that was best for the United States, I think….
I had taken a leave of absence of one year from my law firm, having participated in the political campaign of General Eisenhower, as I mentioned to you earlier. I was really eager to follow him to Washington. I had a lifelong interest in it, and I was anxious to go into government.
So when I finally got there, I really worked very hard at it and tried my best to make good use of my time knowing that I only had a year to be in Washington and became very devoted to Secretary Dulles and to the experience of being close to high foreign policy, sitting in on his daily staff conferences with all the assistant secretaries each morning.
I was really very enthusiastic and very much taken by it. So I was thoroughly enjoying this year in Washington, but very conscious that the clock was ticking and that I had only a year. I had a wife and three little boys. I was only 31, and I felt a little bit guilty that I had taken this time out from my career having previously taken four years to be in the war.
I really felt I had an obligation to get back to my law firm and a serious practice. So as we approached the end of the year, I went to Secretary Dulles. I had been waiting for a moment when I found him in a relaxed mood.
I said to him, “Mr. Secretary, I just want to remind you that I will be going back to New York to my law firm in just about a month or so, and I do think you should begin to look for a replacement. I took this position for one year and the year is nearly up.”
And he said to me, “Well, David, you know I’m leaving for a conference in Germany tomorrow. But please don’t do anything about this until I get back and we talk about it, because I’ve already spoken to President Eisenhower about you, and I think he has something in mind for you at another agency but at a very much higher level. So wait until I get back.”
So I did, and very shortly I learned that the President wanted me to become Assistant Secretary of the Air Force at a time when all of the other assistant secretaries were my father’s age and I would be dealing daily with four-star generals in a very exciting life.
So it didn’t take me too much to decide that, law or no law, I wanted to try the Pentagon. That’s why I went there.
“He had an incredible grasp of detail of diplomatic history of foreign countries”
Q: I wonder if you could describe how [Dulles] operated in meetings?
SMITH: Yes, I’d be glad to. He had two levels of meetings. One was a very small meeting of just three or four officers in his office that he sometimes held. But he held regularly scheduled, almost daily, meetings of all the assistant secretaries. That was in a larger conference room with assistant secretaries around the table and the Secretary setting at the head of the table. They started, as I recall, about 9:00, [beginning with reports] on intelligence that had already been finished and all that.
This was to get a direct report individually from the different assistant secretaries on their geographic areas, developments that they felt were significant that might or might not have been covered in the intelligence briefings, their views and recommendations. It was, to me, a very exhilarating occasion which in some ways was a great opportunity for the Secretary to display his incredibly detailed knowledge gained from a lifelong study of diplomatic and government history.
If the Assistant Secretary for Latin America might be speaking about a border dispute between two adjacent countries, for example, the Secretary would be apt to make a remark like this: “Well, don’t forget now, do go back and study how that discussion would be influenced by the treaties between those two countries of 1832 and then the Treaty of 1871 which was later modified by the Treaty of 1890 in that border dispute and further modified in 1906 and 1917.”
It was incredible. He had a tremendous grasp, and it would be the same in any part of the world, whether it was the Far East or Europe or South America. He had an incredible grasp of detail of diplomatic history of foreign countries.
In effect, I feel and I’ve understood from others, he had been studying to be Secretary of State pretty much all of his life and it showed. He was a very self-contained, quiet, controlled man of considerable wisdom and determination.
“Dulles was viewed by many people as being a sort of political ‘hatchet man.’”
Eugene Bird, Office of Personnel, Rockefeller intern, 1953-1955
BIRD: The presidential election was in November, Eisenhower became president in January, 1953, and John Foster Dulles was appointed Secretary of State. We scrambled around trying to learn who this person [Dulles] was. As we were in public affairs, we would supposedly have to have read everything that he ever wrote. It was quite difficult to find things that Dulles had written. Secretary of State Dulles came into office and, shortly thereafter, decided to have a massive Reduction in Force [RIF].
So a lot of people were left without jobs. The Rockefeller people had insisted that we be given full civil service status and protection, right from the start, so we were protected from the RIF. [Many] people in USIS [United States Information Service] and the ECA [Educational and Cultural Affairs] were separated from government service, while 40 Rockefeller interns remained in the Department…
[Outgoing Secretary of State Dean] Acheson was very highly thought of in the Foreign Service. He was considered a very professional, high-class person. Dulles was viewed by many people as being a sort of political “hatchet man.” There was that aspect to it. People who had worked with Dulles had a lot of respect for his abilities but also viewed him as something of a “bull in a China shop” in terms of our relations with some of our allies and some of our programs.
Of course, the programs were being slashed right and left at that point. There was a major re-thinking of what we should do with this massive bureaucracy that had been put together over the years by the Democrats. So there was that aspect. But the other aspect, I think, was, “Thank God that we’ve got a tough champion, close to President Eisenhower, who might do something about the situation on the Hill”…
There was a feeling that, “Well, if we have to have a son of a bitch, we’ve got a good one here. And he’s a person who isn’t going to be run over by a lot of people.” Dulles had been a politician and had a good relationship with the President. That also was very important. But people in the Department felt that Dulles lacked to some extent the savoir faire to do some of the things that the old Foreign Service would like to see him do…
The modernization of the Foreign Service really began with Secretary of State Dulles. That was the point. I saw it from the standpoint of the administration and management side. Of course, you start out with a study. You had various commissions that were appointed to try to “renew” the Foreign Service and give the President a more “American” Foreign Service.
There had been an attitude that we didn’t know how to administer the very large programs that we were involved in. The Marshall Plan was largely finished by that time. It wasn’t complete, but it had been reoriented to a large extent….
[Eisenhower and Dulles planned to] reorganize the Foreign Service so that it would stop talking about trying to accommodate to the Russians and try to confront them openly, strongly, and completely. That was partly the result of the Korean War, which had a deep effect on American politics. This was one of the reasons why Eisenhower ran and why he was elected.
“Dulles was opening the door just a little bit to find out what I looked like”
Frances Knight, Director of the Passport Office, 1955-1977
KNIGHT (seen at right): Dulles was a good friend of mine. Well, he was the one who really hired me. I remember he called me to his office, and he said that I had been recommended by Members of Congress to him, and that Mrs. Shipley was retiring, and that it had been suggested to him that I was a proper person for that job because I had been working in the government over the years. So I think that from that standpoint, it was all right.
I remember so well that Dulles said to me — when I was in the waiting room outside his office, it was just a small one, half the size of this, a lot of chairs, I was sitting like this towards the door, and I was watching the door, and the door moved just a little bit, and a little bit more. I thought I saw a person’s eye. Sure enough, it was Dulles.
Dulles was opening the door just a little bit to find out what I looked like, you know, and he had already known that I was there. So then he made an effort to open the door, as though he had not been looking through the door. I remember that very well.
He invited me into his office, and he said, “Well, I just want to discuss with you the fact that you have been recommended by Members of Congress and by the Secretary for the Passport Office. Mrs. Shipley is leaving, she’s retiring, and you’ve got a reputation of being very tough with people.”
And I looked at him, and I said, “Well, what about you? You’re tough with people. I know about all your toughness.” (Laughs) And we started talking, and that was it. Out of that small, insignificant conversation, he said, “When can you start?” That was it.
“He treated the Foreign Service sort of like a public convenience”
Richard Parker, Israel/Jordan Desk Officer, 1956-1959
PARKER: We saw Dulles as a very remote figure who really didn’t know anything about the details of what was going on in the Department. He treated the Foreign Service sort of like a public convenience. I once interpreted for Dulles during the visit of King Saud in 1957. I was one of the team of interpreters. One night I found myself interpreting for Dulles and a Saudi who was a very short prince named Musaid Bin Abdul Rahman, who was the Chief of the Diwan [hall where a minister sits and receives supplicants] of complaints. He was the ombudsman for Saudi Arabia.
Dulles came into this dinner. We were seated at dinner. I forget whose dinner it was, it wasn’t Dulles’ dinner, it was somebody else’s. This was a state visit. I guess it was King Saud’s dinner for us. It was the Mayflower Hotel or someplace like that.
Dulles came in, sat down and said, “Good evening,” to me. And he said, “Good night,” when he left. These were the only words he spoke to me all evening. We were there for about two hours. I was constantly interpreting.
I obviously wasn’t an Arab. I’m blond and freckled and don’t look at all like an Arab. Never any question about how I learned Arabic or who I was or anything else. I could have been a telephone instrument in his hand as far as that was concerned. I am not allowed to eat either, of course. I am sitting just behind and between these two gentlemen.
By contrast, I also interpreted for then-Vice President Nixon the first night of the visit when President Eisenhower entertained the king. My man was pretty high in the Saudi pecking order, so I was up at the head table. I was interpreting between him and Vice President Nixon. Nixon immediately wanted to know who I was and how I spoke Arabic. (Photo: Corbis)
Afterwards, during one of the intermissions on another occasion, he made a point of coming up and talking to all of us. Sort of politicking, but expressing some personal interest in who we were, and he was pleased that we had people in the Foreign Service who could interpret like this, this difficult language.
Dulles was just a hopelessly remote figure. We respected and admired his abilities as a lawyer, as a drafter, as a politician. But as a human being, he didn’t have much appeal to us.
“He was a dyed-in-the-wool lawyer with a cold-war missionary zeal”
Marshall Green, Regional Planning Advisor for the Far East, Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, 1956-1960.
GREEN: A few comments about Secretary Dulles’ handling of the [Taiwan Straits] crisis: I was deeply impressed by his excellent working relations with President Eisenhower, as well as with his associates in State, Defense, and the CIA (headed by his brother, Allen).
On several occasions, near the conclusion of meetings in his office, Dulles would pick up the secure phone and tell the President of our conclusions and solicit his comments or, where relevant, his approval. Dulles thus made it clear to all present that he was acting under Eisenhower’s orders. That, in turn, strengthened Dulles’ position with all his associates.
I was also impressed by the way Dulles took charge of the problem, making it his personal responsibility to work out a peaceful solution, losing many hours of sleep in the process. Yet he sought advice from his associates.
I recall how Gerard Smith, at that time Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, used to argue almost instinctively against the emerging consensus of several of our meetings. Dulles seemed to welcome the ensuing debate which helped to fine-hone the final decisions.
Diplomatic biographer Sir Harold Nicholson once wrote that the worst kind of diplomatists are zealots, lawyers and missionaries, and the best kind are humane skeptics. In his first years as Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles seemed to fall clearly in the first category. He was a dyed-in-the-wool lawyer with a cold-war missionary zeal. For him, countering Soviet aggressive acts gave rise to a new term in diplomacy: “brinksmanship.”
He stonily refused to shake the extended hand of Zhou En-lai at Geneva in 1954 (seen at right) — an insult never forgotten by Zhou. He was also associated in the minds of many of us Foreign Service Officers with Senator McCarthy and his ilk who pilloried the Foreign Service and hounded out of office several of our best China specialists whose only “crime” was the accuracy of their reports out of China during World War II, predicting the decline of the Chinese Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang and the rise of Mao’s Communists.
John Foster Dulles may be remembered by history as one of our most zealous, hard-line Secretaries of State, especially in his dealings with Moscow and Peking, but from my vantage point, in the next to last year of his life, he appeared as a man of moderation and reason, an able practitioner of diplomacy as well as of law.
“Almost without exception, the Secretary knew the answer”
Archer K. Blood, Executive Secretariat, 1956-1962
BLOOD: Secretary Dulles liked his privacy. Even assistant secretaries who wanted to contact him had to call us [in the Executive Secretariat.] So I would get phone calls at home or on Saturday morning from people saying they had to see the Secretary.
It was difficult as a young officer to make the decision when you were going to call John Foster Dulles and say, “Somebody wants to see you” or not. Or you just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t give out his number,” and try to refer them to somebody else.
Also, in those days, if you had an eyes-only cable for the Secretary that came in over the weekend, you went down to the Department and got it. And in your own car, you drove over to the Secretary’s house and delivered it to him and waited there while he read it and gave you instructions as to what to do.
Q: What were your impressions of Mr. Dulles at this time?
BLOOD: First of all, it troubled me that he knew more about the details of the business of the State Department than did most of the senior Foreign Service officers with whom he was dealing. As the EUR [European and Eurasian Affairs] man, I would routinely be invited to the briefing sessions with the Secretary that preceded the visit, say, of the French Prime Minister or the German Chancellor, whoever.
And I was struck that in these meetings when questions came up about details, say, “What does the Treaty of Rome say?” or this or that, that almost without exception, the Secretary knew the answer. The senior Foreign Service people said, “I don’t know. I’ll look it up…”
[Dulles was] not too charitable. Also, the other impression I had was that he was quite inarticulate, in the sense that he answered many questions with grunts. There were people who had worked with him more closely than I who could interpret these grunts, but I found it very difficult when he would look at me and grunt.
And I would normally have to whisper to somebody, “What does he want?” And they would say, “He wants two copies of this” or something like that. And I would go out and get it. But he was not given at all to any small talk or social niceties. All business.