John Foster Dulles

John Foster Dulles was a U.S. attorney and diplomat who served as secretary of state in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration.


John Foster Dulles was born on February 25, 1888, in Washington, D.C. After becoming a partner at the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, he was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations. Appointed secretary of state by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dulles was an effective but polarizing diplomat during the Cold War. He left office shortly before his death from cancer on May 24, 1959.

Background and Early Career

John Foster Dulles was born on February 25, 1888, in Washington, D.C., to a family with well-known political affiliations and diplomatic ties. Raised in a strict Presbyterian household, Dulles went on to attend Princeton University and graduated valedictorian in 1908. He then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, followed by two years at George Washington University Law School.

After passing the New York State Bar Exam, Dulles was able to get a job at the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell due to his influential grandfather. Dulles eventually became a partner, with much of his output having a pronounced international bent. During his time at S&C, he also served as counsel to the U.S. delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference and on the reparations commission following World War I.

Political Adviser and United Nations

Having formed a political association with New York Governor Thomas L. Dewey, Dulles worked for the Dewey presidential campaigns of 1944 and 1948 as the chief foreign policy adviser. He was influential in the formation of the United Nations during that time, and served as acting chairman of the American delegation to the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. Dulles was also appointed interim senator of New York (by Governor Dewey) following the resignation of Robert F. Wagner in 1949, but lost the election for the seat a few months later.

Secretary of State

After Dwight D. Eisenhower won the White House in 1952, Dulles was named secretary of state, while his younger brother Allen Dulles was appointed head of the CIA. Seeking to expand alliances beyond those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, John Foster Dulles was subsequently involved in the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, the Central Treaty Organization and the Austrian State Treaty.

Often working relatively autonomously, Dulles positioned himself in direct opposition to the Soviet Union. He routinely agitated against communism, and as such this stance was acted out via clandestine global maneuvering and severe foreign policy language. Though an extensive traveler with a long network of contacts, Dulles could be a polarizing figure with would-be allies, as exemplified by his alienation of France during the European Defense Community negotiations.

Dulles left the presidential cabinet in April 1959 due to failing health after a three-year battle with cancer. He died on May 24, 1959, in the city of his birth. Decades later, the intertwined lives and careers of the Dulles siblings were chronicled in the Stephen Kinzer book, The Brothers (2013).

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