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John Foster Dulles

diplomat, Secretary of State

John Foster Dulles

John Foster Dulles was born in Washington, D.C., on February 25, 1888, the son of Allen Macy Dulles, a Presbyterian minister, and Edith Foster Dulles. The Dulles family had a distinguished history of public service, beginning with John's grandfather, John Watson Foster, who had served as a Brigadier General during the Civil War, as U.S. Minister to both Mexico and Russia, and as Secretary of State under President Benjamin Harrison. His uncle, Robert Lansing, served as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. The Dulles family tradition continued in John's generation, with his younger brother, Allen, serving as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1953 to 1961 and his younger sister, Eleanor, working in the State Department.

After completing his primary education at public schools in Watertown, New York, Dulles entered Princeton University. His original intention was to study theology and follow his father into the ministry, but in the summer of 1907 he accompanied his grandfather to the second Hague Peace Conference, where the elder Foster was acting as a delegate for the Imperial Government of China. Foster got his grandson a job as a secretary to the Chinese delegation, and it was this experience that began to turn his interest towards diplomacy. After graduating Phil Beta Kappa and as class valedictorian from Princeton in 1908, Dulles used a $600 scholarship to spend a year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. By the time he returned to the United States in 1909 he had decided to go into law instead of the ministry.

Because he completed his law studies in two years instead of the usual three, George Washington University declined to award him a law degree, but he still managed to pass the New York State Bar examinations and be licensed to practice law, in 1911. His lack of a law degree initially prevented him from getting hired by a law firm, but his grandfather was able to get him a position in the New York City law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, where he specialized in international law. Dulles became a valuable member of the firm, and eventually became a partner.

Dulles tried to enlist in the Army upon U.S. entry into the First World War, but was rejected because of poor eyesight. He was able, however, to get commissioned as a Captain on the War Industries Board, and his service in that position led to President Woodrow Wilson appointing him as legal counsel to the Versailles Peace Conference and then as a member of the War Reparations Committee. He returned to his private practice job after these duties ended, but his public service career had just gotten started.

In 1939, Dulles worked on behalf of Thomas E. Dewey's campaign to garner the Republican presidential nomination; Dewey lost his bid to Wendell L. Willkie, however. Dewey did win the Republican presidential nomination in 1944, and again in 1948, and Dulles served as his foreign policy adviser during both campaigns.

In 1945, Dulles worked as an adviser to Arthur H. Vandenberg during the San Francisco Conference that formed the United Nations. He subsequently served as the United States delegate to the U.N. General Assembly in 1946, 1947, and 1950. In 1949, Dulles accompanied Secretary of State Dean Acheson to the "Big Four" foreign ministers' conference in Paris. On July 7, 1949, New York Governor Thomas Dewey appointed Dulles to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the resignation of Robert F. Wagner. Dulles served in the Senate until November 8 of that same year, at which time he was defeated for permanent appointment in a special election.

In 1950, Dulles published War or Peace, a critical analysis of the American policy of containment, which at the time was favored by many of the foreign policy elites in Washington, and which criticized the foreign policy of President Harry S. Truman. In April of 1951, after Truman removed General Douglas MacArthur as commander of U.S. forces in Korea, Truman asked Dulles to go to Tokyo and assure the Japanese government that the United States was not changing its policy regarding the Far East. Dulles agreed, and then spent the rest of the year traveling between Tokyo and Washington, D.C., resolving differences between the two nations in order to finalize a "peace of reconciliation," which was signed at San Francisco on September 8, 1951.

Dulles was one of the first Cabinet appointments made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who named him as his Secretary of State. Among his many accomplishments during his tenure was the strengthening of NATO and the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). In 1956, Dulles strongly condemned the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis, but then, in 1958, prevented Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from getting weapons from the United States so it could defend itself; this refusal led Nasser to turn to the Soviet Union for help, which in turn gave the Soviet Union greater influence in the Middle East. While his attention was focused on the Middle East, Dulles missed an opportunity to provide assistance to Hungarian revolutionaries, which he mistakenly believed to be allied with the Soviet Union. Despite these "mistakes," Dulles's tenure as Secretary of State was seen by most, especially by President Eisenhower, as one of the most productive in the history of the State Department.

Dulles was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 1956, but for two years appeared to be recovering. By 1959, however, his health had deteriorated, and he was forced to resign as Secretary of State on April 15, 1959. He died at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on May 24, 1959, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Janet (whom he had married in 1912), sons Avery (a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church) and John Watson, (a university professor), and daughter Lillian (a Presbyterian minister).

John Foster Dulles received full military honors in a state funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
funeral of John Foster Dulles

Civil War
Secretary of State
President Benjamin Harrison
President Woodrow Wilson
First World War
Wendell L. Willkie
Dean Acheson
President Harry S. Truman
Douglas MacArthur
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Southeast Asia Treaty Organization
Gamal Abdel Nasser

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The Robinson Library >> Dwight D. Eisenhower's Administration, 1953-1961

This page was last updated on July 15, 2018.