John Foster Dulles: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
John Foster Dulles served as Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. His name is synonymous with brinkmanship, massive retaliation, rollback, and nuclear deterrence in confronting communist states. Learn about the man and his life and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Dulles: The Early Years

Born in 1888 in Washington D.C., John Foster Dulles attended Princeton, the Sorbonne, and George Washington University. Dulles had deep religious roots and argued for a moral-based diplomacy. Dulles worked for the prestigious New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell but his deep family political connections drew him into politics. In 1907, he attended the Second Hague Peace Conference with his grandfather who was Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison. He served on the War Industries Board during the First World War. His uncle Robert Lansing, who as Secretary of State under President Wilson recruited Dulles as legal counsel at the Versailles Treaty in Paris in 1919.

He also participated in the Dumbarton Oaks Conference of August-October 1944 in Washington D.C. and in the founding UN. conference in San Francisco in April-June 1945. Next, by personal request from President Truman, he assisted Secretary of State Dean Acheson in negotiating the tricky U.S. treaty with Japan. He temporarily filled a vacant Senate seat in New York, but his big moment came when President Eisenhower appointed him as Secretary of State following a high-profile 1953 Life Magazine article he wrote criticizing President Truman.

John Foster Dulles
John Foster Dulles

Dulles as Secretary of State

Eisenhower and Dulles proved a good team as the vocal and bombastic Dulles complemented the seemingly stoic and reserved Eisenhower. Dulles helped Eisenhower shift American foreign policy in three key ways. First, Dulles felt that Truman's containment doctrine was too rigid. He argued for a policy that recruited more allies and for a more proactive policy of liberation or 'rollback' that would push back, rather than simply quarantine communist states.

Second, he endorsed the policy of 'massive retaliation' in which the U.S. threatened the use of nuclear weapons or massive aerial bombardment to ward off potential aggressors. The assumption was that war could be won on the cheap from the air without ground troops. Another term for this is nuclear deterrence.

Third, he supported brinkmanship, which steered a middle course between military action and peace. Essentially, it was a bluff strategy which pushed confrontation to the edge of war without going to war to scare opponents into submission. This was a dangerous game of chicken and it was easier said than done as circumstances more than policy proscriptions drove decision-making.

More practically speaking, Dulles promoted the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) which was an eight-country treaty to prevent the spread of communism in Asia. Though it was inspired by NATO, it was limited since only two Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines and Thailand signed it. Trouble soon brewed in Vietnam as the French were defeated at Dienbienphu and pulled out of Vietnam. The subsequent Geneva Accords temporarily split Vietnam into two, with the condition that a national election would unite the country.

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