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By Nick Sarantakes

 John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in U.S. Foreign Policy
By Richard H. Immerman
(Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 1999. Pp. xxvi, 221.)


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Richard Immerman was part of a small group of scholars that blazed the path of Eisenhower revisionism. Instead of finding a sincere chief executive overwhelmed by Washington’s Byzantine politics, these historians and political scientists found the former general to be a shrewd and savvy administrator who controlled policy formulation, but assigned the difficult task of explaining controversial policies to his subordinates. This management style enabled Ike to preserve his popularity with the American people and use his office as a national, unifying force. A generation later, Eisenhower revisionism has almost become a dogma among scholars. While there is plenty of room to question the wisdom and merit of Eisenhower’s policies, few question the basic tenet that the president was in control of his administration.

Many of the cabinet officers and White House officials who enjoyed contemporary reputations as influential shapers of public life have had their reputations suffer at the hands of Eisenhower revisionists. Perhaps none more so than Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. He went from being the uncompromising Presbyterian and zealous anti-communist architect of American foreign policy to becoming a shrill hatchet man simply doing the bidding of his president.

While not abandoning the arguments he made earlier in his career, Immerman believes that new view of Dulles has gone too far in dismissing the work of the secretary of state. In this present work and in John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War (1990), a compilation of essays from an assortment of historians which he edited, Immerman has set out to provide a corrective to views that are disdainful of the Wall Street lawyer-turned-diplomat. He contends that Dulles and Eisenhower were a team; that both men trusted the other and had frank discussions among themselves and encouraged it from their subordinates in order to develop the most informed policy possible.

The presentation that follows is an impressive synthesis of the literature on U.S. foreign policy during the life of John Foster Dulles. Those who think they know Dulles should read the first two chapters; they will leave with a better understanding of Dulles as a person, a thinker, and a diplomat. The chapters on his years at State give the reader a sound appreciation of the events of the day as the participants faced them; nonetheless, this coverage is episodic in nature with the narrative moving from one crisis to another. Dulles is constantly reacting, rather than initiating action. The 1950s were a time fraught with peril and Immerman covers all the well-known episodes: the end of the Korean War, Dien Bien Phu, the European Defense Community, German inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Quemoy and Matsu, Guatemala, Iran, Suez, Hungary, the status of Berlin, and the pervasive concern about nuclear weapons. The author, however, spends little time on issues such as U.S. efforts to undermine the Sukarno government in Indonesia, the deepening American commitment in Vietnam, the crisis-riddled relationship between Washington and Tokyo that some how got stronger, or the concern that Dulles had about maintaining support for the administration’s foreign policies in Congress. Indeed, Immerman asserts that this focus on one emergency after another reflects the way Dulles handled foreign policy. “Notwithstanding his contribution to and support for the administration’s New Look, his hectic agenda and peripatetic behavior were the product more of crisis management than strategic doctrine.”

In that vein the secretary of state emerges as an extremely inconsistent man. Immerman notes, “Dulles left an impressive yet contradictory legacy.” He also explains why: “Dulles thought strategically but too often behaved tactically.” In office, the secretary of state wanted to strengthen the NATO alliance, but resented allied initiatives that implied equality with the United States. He understood the power of nationalist aspirations and realized that they had little to do with the American-Soviet confrontation, but he chose instead to promote policies that rejected accommodation with this force. His ideas about nuclear weapons border on the schizophrenic. His positions changed constantly with Dulles eventually becoming an in-house heretic against the New Look, believing it would eventually force Americans into a situation where they had to choose between two objectionable options: retreat or nuclear war. He soon began advocating privately that Washington increase the size of its conventional forces so that policy makers would have better choices in times of crisis. This idea was essential an early version of the Flexible Response strategy of the Kennedy administration.

On balance, this is a useful book. The writing is clean, clear, and accessible. Immerman has done an impressive job of fulfilling the main mission of the “Biographies in American Foreign Policy,” series (in which this work appears), which is “to humanize and make more accessible those decisions and events that sometimes appear abstract and distant.” Dulles emerges as a figure who left his mark on U.S. foreign policy, even if it was less than fundamental. Immerman also gives the reader an idea of what it must have been like to be secretary of state in the 1950s, as well as a well-nuanced description of how the Dulles-Eisenhower partnership worked. bug


NES Nick Sarantakes teaches American foreign relations at Texas A&M – Commerce.

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