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God’s Cold Warrior:
The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles

by john d. wilsey
eerdmans, 271 pages, $21.99

John Foster Dulles is a largely forgotten figure. Had he not served as U.S. secretary of state from 1953 to 1959, that largely would be entirely. Whatever interest his life retains stems from his tenure as the nation’s chief diplomat during the tense early years of the Cold War.

Oddly, however, John Wilsey’s “religious biography” of Dulles devotes fewer than twenty pages to its subject’s tenure at the helm of the State Department. Wilsey, who teaches church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, directs most of his attention elsewhere. His stated purpose is to “explore [Dulles’s] worldview as informed by his religion.”

As a 1950s-vintage cold warrior, Dulles is a fairly easy read: He was an uncompromising ideologue. As a Christian of a particular type—a non-doctrinaire, twentieth-century Presbyterian—he is more elusive. Dulles “kept his inner life largely hidden from outsiders,” Wilsey writes. Wilsey’s own efforts to illuminate that inner life yield little.

Foster (as he was known to friends and as Wilsey chummily calls him) grew up in an environment “steeped in piety, nature, and devotion to customs,” along with the privileges that came with being born into the Eastern elite. His grandfather John W. Foster had served as Benjamin Harrison’s secretary of state. His uncle Robert Lansing had served Woodrow Wilson in the same capacity. As a boy, Foster attended private schools and traveled widely abroad. In 1908, he graduated from ­Princeton, valedictorian of his class. A year at the Sorbonne followed, then law school and a position with Sullivan and Cromwell, a New York law firm with a corporate clientele. As a lawyer, Dulles demonstrated a knack for translating access into solutions. In 1916, for example, “He prevailed upon Lansing to send two navy destroyers to Cuba to protect the interests of his clients in the midst of political unrest.”

When the United States entered the European War the following year, Foster wangled a commission but remained stateside until the Armistice. He then pulled strings to land a post as a minor functionary in the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. There he attracted attention as a shrewd counselor and able ­troubleshooter.

By 1926, at just thirty-eight years of age, he became Sullivan and Cromwell’s managing partner, a position that he continued to hold for more than two decades. “Religion played a crucial role in Foster’s career,” Wilsey contends. Yet he offers little evidence to suggest that this was the case.

True, beginning in the 1920s, Dulles did volunteer his services to the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) and other ecumenical undertakings focused on promoting world peace. Inherent in this project was a determination to “modernize” various Protestant denominations, including his own, by weaning them from obsolete theological convictions. Dulles believed it incumbent upon the United States as a Christian nation to adhere to policies “that promoted mutual prosperity and prevented future war.” In this context, he “came to see himself as divinely called to usher the Christian church onto the world stage.” In effect, his aim was to make faith an adjunct to international politics, converting American Protestantism into a means of conflict prevention and resolution.

By the 1930s, Dulles had developed his own idiosyncratic theory regarding war: Hostilities erupted when nations obstructed necessary changes in the international order. In a 1935 essay published in the Atlantic Monthly, Dulles summed up the problem this way: “Forces which in the long run are irresistible are temporarily dammed up. When they finally break through, they do so with violence.” The key to averting war, therefore, was to allow irresistible change to occur.

In the middle of that decade, certain nations were pressing for changes that they considered necessary. They included Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany—where, not so incidentally, Sullivan and Cromwell had major business interests. According to Wilsey, Dulles classified these “as dynamic powers acting much as the United States and Britain had as they expanded their territories in the nineteenth century.” In a passage from the ­Atlantic Monthly article Wilsey does not quote, Dulles insisted that the expansionist policies of these three nations did not mark them as “inherently warlike or bloodthirsty.” On the contrary: “They too want peace but they undoubtedly feel within themselves potentialities which are repressed and desire to keep open avenues of change.” Indeed, Wilsey notes, Dulles “continued to defend those nations’ actions as late as 1939.”

Dulles was hardly the only observer to misjudge the ambitions of the Axis powers. Yet religious conviction played almost no role in determining his sympathetic attitude toward Japan, Italy, and Germany. If Dulles adhered to a worldview during the years prior to the Second World War, it derived from misguided pragmatism rather than faith.

As a consequence of his attending a 1937 conference on “Church, Community, and State” at Oxford University, that worldview began to shift. At Oxford, Wilsey writes, Dulles discovered that it was incumbent upon church leaders “to form the consciences of those in power,” pursuant to a liberal Protestant belief in “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” Once an apologist for militarism, Dulles now viewed international politics through “the dualism of nation-­deity and nation-villain.” The epitome of the nation-deity was the United States. While leading the FCC’s wartime Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, Dulles concluded that Americans had a “divinely inspired mission” to ensure the universal embrace of moral law as defined by American Protestant churches of a liberal persuasion.

This was the perspective that ­Dulles carried into the postwar era when he achieved prominence as a participant in the San Francisco Conference that created the United Nations, in ­negotiating a peace treaty with Japan, and finally in serving as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state.

For Dulles, there was no postwar era. After 1945, he “simply pivoted to a new enemy”: the U.S.S.R. The ­Dulles who had exhibited ­considerable patience for Nazi Germany had none for Russia, quickly concluding that whereas America represented “the paradigmatic expression of the moral law in the world,” the Soviet Union represented the epitome of evil.

Wilsey attempts to place Dulles’s evolving worldview in a coherent religious context. In my judgment, the effort does not succeed. The best explanation for what made Dulles tick may be the most obvious one: Though nominally Christian, in his professional life he prioritized matters related to wealth, power, and ambition, as “men of the world” since time ­immemorial have tended to do.

This did not make Dulles a bad person. It did, however, render him unable to comprehend, much less to transcend, the pressing moral dilemmas he encountered as “God’s Cold Warrior.” So Wilsey passes over in a few pages the issues that defined ­Dulles’s term as secretary of state, above all his embrace of massive retaliation as the centerpiece of U.S. national security strategy. Other issues, such as the alliances forged with unsavory dictators and the unleashing of the CIA to overthrow governments not to Washington’s liking, go altogether unmentioned.

It may well be that for any statesman of any religious persuasion, tracing a connection between faith and the exercise of power is a daunting proposition. As I write this, Joe Biden is about to become president, the second Catholic to occupy the White House. Biden appears to be a serious Catholic. Should Americans expect his purported beliefs to shape his decisions once in office? Don’t count on it. As our first Catholic president famously put it, “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own,” with God himself an ­afterthought.

Andrew Bacevich is president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.