Modern history



Because the most famous spy in modern history, James Bond, is a fictional character, he did not accompany the chief of Britain’s naval intelligence service into the Oval Office one day at the beginning of 1941. His creator, however, did. The two of them, Admiral John Godfrey and his aide, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, carried an urgent message from Winston Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt: the United States must build a modern intelligence service.

Roosevelt needed little persuasion. He had sent the irrepressible “Wild Bill” Donovan on a three-month tour of battlefronts in the Balkans and North Africa, and Donovan returned with a report stressing the value of resistance, sabotage, and covert operations. Impressed, Roosevelt gave him an office in the basement of the White House and asked him to write a proposal outlining what an American intelligence agency might be and do. On June 11, 1941, not long after Roosevelt met with Churchill’s secret envoys, Donovan presented it. A week later Roosevelt sent a directive to the Bureau of the Budget ordering it to create a new agency called the Coordinator of Information, assign it $100 million in funds already appropriated for “preparedness,” and list Donovan as its founding director.

“Donovan was a born leader of men,” Allen Dulles later wrote of the dynamo who became his wartime boss. “He had indefatigable energy and wide-ranging enthusiasm combined with great courage and resourcefulness.… He knew the world, having traveled widely. He understood people. He had a flair for the unusual and for the dangerous, tempered with judgment. In short, he had the qualities to be desired in an intelligence officer.”

Three weeks after Roosevelt created the Coordinator of Information, an innocuous notice appeared in the Federal Register announcing it. The COI, it said, would “collect and analyze all information and data which may bear upon the national security,” send it to the president and “such departments and officials as the president may determine,” and carry out “such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information important for national security, not now available to the Government.”

With that, the United States established its first full-fledged intelligence agency by presidential decree.

When Japanese bombers attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans instantly ceased to debate whether their country should enter the war. Whatever sense of security they felt had been shattered. In Washington, shock over the attack quickly gave way to a realization that it had been the result of a profound intelligence failure. Congress and the executive branch rushed to give the COI whatever support it needed.

Part of what it needed was the skill and experience of Allen Dulles. A few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Donovan approached him through a mutual friend, David Bruce. It was the call for which Allen had been waiting. Bruce told him that Donovan needed a man for a job. He said nothing about the job, only that it required “absolute discretion, sobriety, devotion to duty, languages, and wide experience.” Allen accepted instantly.

Like many stories about Allen during these years, this one has come into question. By some accounts he was already working for Donovan at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. What is clear is that by early 1942, he had closed his Sullivan & Cromwell cases and taken over as chief of the COI station in New York. He leased a large suite of offices on the thirty-sixth floor of the International Building at Rockefeller Center and brought dozens, scores, and then hundreds of men and women to work there: lawyers, financiers, former diplomats, businessmen, and professors. Officially they were financial consultants. To friends they were allowed to say that they worked for a “research unit” related to the war effort, while stressing its “dull, statistical” nature.

“New York was the logical first place, and Dulles was the logical guy because of his contacts,” one of Donovan’s aides later recalled. “He started bringing people in right away.”

Allen had two principal assignments. First was to lay the groundwork for an intelligence network that could penetrate Germany and the German-held regions of Europe, which meant finding and interviewing immigrants, Americans who had lived in those regions, and others who might have valuable memories or contacts. Second was an even wider-ranging effort to debrief everyone in New York, especially merchant seamen and newly arrived immigrants, who could give information—the more precise, the better—about European cities, ports, roads, rail lines, airports, factories, and military bases. Allen’s agents also swarmed over docks, sailors’ registry offices, and holding pens for “enemy aliens,” offering money for objects that immigrants might have considered worthless but that could be valuable to infiltrators. They bought old suits, neckties, overcoats, and shoes that could help agents blend in, and also identity cards, ration books, and other documents for forgers to use as models.

All manner of European exiles and refugees poured into the Rockefeller Center office; one, Heinrich Brüning, had been chancellor of Germany until 1932. The office swelled to fill four floors. When that proved insufficient, Allen rented eight more offices around the city, including one at 42 Broadway, near the docks. He quickly became fascinated with the possibilities for “direct action” operations in Europe, and established a front called the Mohawk Trading Corporation, through which he assembled an arsenal of sniper rifles, silencers, poison pills, and other tools of the black arts.

Allen had chosen his suite at Rockefeller Center in part because it adjoined one where another secret operation was under way, run by the legendary Sir William Stephenson, later revealed to be the spymaster Churchill called “Intrepid” and supposedly a model for Commander Fleming’s fictional agent 007. Churchill had sent Stephenson to New York in 1940 to gather intelligence and try to push the United States toward entering the war. He established himself in Suite 3603 of the International Building, where the sign on the door said “British Passport Control Office.” Britain was known as setting the gold standard in intelligence work, and Allen found in Stephenson a role model, inspiration, and guru.

“He had much to teach me,” Allen said later. “I picked his brains.”

On June 13, 1942, with the United States engaged in global war, Roosevelt signed an order transforming the Coordinator of Information from an intelligence-gathering agency into one authorized to conduct covert and paramilitary operations. There was no change in leadership, but a new name: the Office of Strategic Services. The OSS was authorized to do everything its predecessor had done and one thing more: “Plan and operate such services as may be directed by the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

“With this, Donovan’s blueprint for the coordination of strategic intelligence collection with secret operations was realized,” Allen wrote later. “An intelligence agency had been created for the first time in the United States which brought together under one roof the work of intelligence collection and counterespionage, with the support of underground resistance activities, sabotage, and almost anything else in aid of our national effort that regular armed forces were not equipped to do.”

The OSS opened secret training camps for agents in Maryland and Virginia, and quickly ballooned to a staff of more than six hundred, most based in New York or Washington. Allen hired many of them. He described them as “military men and civilian leaders, teachers, bankers, lawyers, businessmen, librarians, writers, publishers, ballplayers, missionaries, reformed safe-crackers, bartenders, tugboat operators.… A bartender was hired not because he knew how to mix drinks but because he spoke perfect Italian and was at home in the mountain passes of the Apennines; a missionary because he knew the tribes and native dialects of Burma; an expert in engraving because his agents would need the most expert documentation to pass through enemy lines.”

That was a romanticized description of the men and women who joined the OSS. There were mud-on-the-shoes types, of course, but Allen and other recruiters for the OSS looked mostly to people like themselves, people they knew from prep school, college, the practice of corporate law or investment banking, clubs, vacation resorts, or the Council on Foreign Relations. The upper reaches of the OSS comprised what Drew Pearson called “one of the fanciest groups of dilettante diplomats, Wall Street bankers, and amateur detectives ever seen in Washington.” Many from this group would go on to help shape the United States in the second half of the twentieth century: Richard Helms, William Colby, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Walt Rostow, Stewart Alsop, C. Douglas Dillon, Arthur Goldberg, William Casey, Ralph Bunche, and a parade of unlikelier figures ranging from Sterling Hayden to Julia Child.

Interviewing sailors and refugees in New York produced a trove of intelligence, and Donovan was eager to use it. In July 1942, just weeks after the OSS was created, he sent President Roosevelt notice that he was ready to launch operations in Europe.

Switzerland is now, as it was in the last war, the one most advantageous place for the obtaining of information concerning the European Axis powers.… We have finally worked out with the State Department the appointment of a representative of this organization to proceed to Bern as “Financial Attaché.” … However, we badly need a man of a different type; some person of a quality who can mingle freely with intellectual and business circles in Switzerland in order to tap the constant and enormous flow of information that comes from Germany and Italy to these people.… As soon as we find the man we need and check him with the Department of State, I shall advise you.

Donovan had already spoken to Allen about the possibility of moving abroad, and had offered him a post as deputy to David Bruce, whom Donovan had named to run the OSS station in London. Being anyone’s deputy was not Allen’s wish. He told Donovan he would prefer a post where “my past experience would serve me in good stead.” Donovan understood what he meant: Switzerland.

On September 17, 1942, the New York Times published a short item announcing that Allen had resigned as treasurer of the Manhattan Republican Party to concentrate on “war work for the Office of Strategic Services.” Few people knew what the OSS was. At Upper East Side and Georgetown cocktail parties, wives joked that its initials stood for “Oh So Secret” or, because of its Ivy League tint, “Oh So Social.” Allen’s friends, though, had little trouble guessing what he was up to. He had taken up strange but revealing habits like asking people who they knew in Switzerland, and meeting for dinner with odd-looking men who spoke with thick accents.

As Allen was preparing to leave for Bern, he received an alarming piece of secret information. Allied forces were planning to invade North Africa on November 8, a move that would presumably set off sweeping German reactions, including the seizure of French ports and perhaps even an invasion of neutral Switzerland. Allen had to reach Bern before that happened. That meant leaving immediately and traveling through Nazi-controlled France, which would make him the first OSS agent to cross enemy lines. Allen was forty-nine years old and suffering from intensifying attacks of gout, but impatient to return to the secret world where he felt most alive.

Clover, who understood that her husband was off to clandestine war but knew no more, drove him to New York Municipal Airport on November 2. Trouble began almost immediately. Bad weather forced his plane to land in the Azores, and he had to sit for two excruciating days before being allowed to fly on to Lisbon. The trip to Barcelona was also full of delays. It was November 8 when he finally reached the French border, at Portbou. There he ran into a Swiss diplomatic courier.

“Have you heard the news?” the man shouted. “The Americans and British are landing in North Africa!”

Allen realized that Nazi officers and their Vichy collaborators were certain to be searching trains. He was carrying secret documents, a certified check for one million dollars, and what he later called “certain of the more esoteric devices of espionage.” If discovered, the best he could hope for would be years in an internment camp. Later he wrote that he considered turning back, but it is difficult to believe that he considered it seriously.

While my train made its way through France that night, I decided that if there were evidence of German controls, I would try to slip away at one of the stops and disappear into the countryside in hopes of making contact with the French resistance.…

At Annemasse, the last stop in France where all passengers for Switzerland had to alight to have their passports examined, I found that a person in civilian dress, obviously a German, was supervising the work of the French border officials. I had been told in Washington that there would probably be a Gestapo agent at this frontier. I was the only one among the passengers who failed to pass muster. The Gestapo man carefully put down in his notebook the particulars of my passport, and a few minutes later a French gendarme explained to me that an order had been received from Vichy to detain all Americans and British presenting themselves at the frontier and to report all such cases to Marshal Pétain directly. I took the gendarme aside and made to him the most impassioned and, I believe, most eloquent speech I have ever made in French. Evoking the shades of Lafayette and Pershing, I impressed upon him the importance of letting me pass.… I began to case the area in the hope of carrying out my plan of slipping away on foot to avoid being trapped there. It wouldn’t have been easy.

Finally around noon, when it was about time for the train to leave for Geneva, the gendarme came up to me, hurriedly motioned for me to get on the train, and whispered to me, Allez passer. Vous voyez que notre collaboration n’est que symbolique. (Go ahead. You see our cooperation is only symbolic.) The Gestapo man was nowhere to be seen. Later I learned that every day, promptly at noon, he went down the street to the nearest pub and had his drink of beer and his lunch. Nothing, including landings in Africa, could interfere with his fixed Germanic habits.…

Within a matter of minutes I had crossed the French border into Switzerland legally. I was one of the last Americans to do so until after the liberation of France. I was ready to go to work.

One of the first people Allen contacted after arriving in Bern, an Austrian lawyer who had done work for Sullivan & Cromwell, helped him find an apartment at Herrengasse 23, part of a row of fourteenth-century town houses set above terraced vineyards. Its balcony offered an idyllic Alpine vista over the Aare River toward the peaks of the Bernese Oberland, capped by the majestic Eiger massif. There was also something any spy would want in his home: a hidden rear entrance.

Years of experience had honed Allen’s talent as an intelligence officer, and he had mastered the techniques of teasing valuable information out of disparate scraps. Nonetheless his assignment was daunting. First he was to create a web of spies that would allow the United States to learn what was happening behind enemy lines and, ultimately, inside Nazi Germany itself. After that, he would begin parachuting agents into occupied countries, supplying weapons to partisans, and directing guerrilla attacks on Nazi targets.

Allen brought several other officers to work with him at the OSS station in Bern. The real work of penetrating Nazi-controlled Europe, however, had to be done by native-born field agents. Many refugees in Bern could become such agents, or knew others who could. An alert Swiss journalist helped some of them find him.

I had been in Switzerland only a few weeks when one of its most respected and widely read newspapers, alerted to the unusual circumstances of my entry, came out with an article describing me as “the personal representative of President Roosevelt” with a “special duty” assignment. This flattering designation, in all its vagueness, was widely circulated, and even if I had wished to do something about it, there was little I could do. Of course, it had the effect of bringing to my door purveyors of information, volunteers and adventurers of every sport, professional and amateur spies, good and bad. Donovan’s operating principle was not to have his senior representatives try to go deep underground, on the very reasonable premise that it was futile and that it was better to let people know you were in the business of intelligence and tell them where they could find you.

Nazi agents, who also read the newspapers, quickly established a watch post across the street from Herrengasse 23, and kept it staffed day and night for as long as Allen lived there. Nonetheless he racked up a quick series of successes. Among his first recruits were a girlfriend of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of military intelligence for the Nazi regime, and a French officer who later provided precise information about German positions in France. He also nurtured bands of partisans in Italy, Poland, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia, and assembled eight separate intelligence networks in France, including one that found a channel into the highest reaches of the Vichy regime.

Allen had permanently shaken off the persona of the gimlet-eyed lawyer, which never quite fit him. He abandoned Wall Street suits for a tweedier, more inviting look, favoring flannels and a rumpled raincoat. One foreign agent filed a report describing him as “a tall, burly, sporting type … healthy looking, with good teeth and a fresh, simple, openhearted manner.” For the rest of his life he presented himself this way: casual, genial, inviting.

Also during those first weeks in Bern, Allen found a mistress. She shared his life as a spy, entertained him after hours, and introduced him to one of the century’s most remarkable mystic thinkers.

Mary Bancroft was a dynamic woman of the world. She had grown up on Beacon Hill in Boston under the wing of her devoted step-grandfather, C. W. Barron, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. A former debutante, she had collected two husbands and an impressive number of lovers, learned fluent French and German, and accumulated a modest fortune. In Geneva she wrote feature articles for American newspapers, worked on a novel, and presided over an informal salon that attracted journalists and politicians, but also spiritualists, vegetarians, and others engaged in esoteric quests. She was thirty-eight years old and had been living in Switzerland for eight years when Allen arrived at the end of 1942 to set up the OSS station. He hired her to write political analysis, and the rest followed hard upon.

“We can let the work cover the romance, and the romance cover the work,” he told her as they began their affair.

Every morning at 9:20, Allen called Mary from his base in Bern with a list of the reports and translations he needed that day, along with suggestions of who she should meet. A couple of times a week she would take the train from Geneva to meet him, spending a few hours discussing German troop movements or prospects for Balkan uprisings and then retiring for what she called “a bit of dalliance.” By her own account she developed “overwhelming admiration for his abilities” and fell “completely in love” with him. After a time, however, she became frustrated by his self-involvement. Their romance began to cool after he appeared unannounced at her apartment one day when he knew her husband was traveling and her daughter was at school, and shouted, “Quick! I’ve got a very tricky meeting coming up, I want to clear my head.”

“We settled onto the living room couch,” she recalled in her memoir, Autobiography of a Spy. “In scarcely more time than it takes to tell the story, he was on his way again, pausing in the doorway only long enough to say, ‘Thanks. That was just what I needed.’”

Despite the swings in their long affair, Allen and Mary remained close colleagues at work. He valued her advice and respected her command of the spy trade. She also had an unusual circle of friends, among them the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung.

Although Mary was a vivacious extrovert, she suffered from painful sneezing fits that she believed were the result of repressed emotional turmoil. She submitted herself to Jung’s analysis, was cured, and became one of his fervent advocates. Jung had reflected deeply about the cultural roots of Nazism, and Mary often mentioned his views in reports she prepared for Allen. The two men, spymaster and spiritual seeker, met at the beginning of 1943 and struck up what Allen called a “still-experimental marriage between espionage and psychology.” Jung wrote a series of reports, including psychological profiles of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, that Allen said were of “real help to me in gauging the political situation.” Some reached the Allied commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, who sent Jung a letter of commendation after the war ended.

Allen’s wartime record at the OSS station in Switzerland was, as is normal in the spy business, a mixture of success and failure. Some of the intelligence he reported proved false after being compared with enemy radio intercepts. After he had been in Bern for six months, one of Donovan’s aides sent him a withering cable asserting that “all news from Bern these days is being discounted 100% by the War Department.” A year later, in the spring of 1944, he made two wildly wrong predictions, first that the Nazi regime was “near collapse” and then that Allied troops would have an easy time landing in France on D-Day. Yet he also ran hundreds of agents across Europe, penetrated governments, and scored espionage triumphs.

Two began when strangers knocked on his door. The first was an anti-Nazi Austrian who led him to documents locating the factory where Nazis were building the V-1 and V-2 rockets they planned to rain down on London. Allen’s information, confirmed by other sources, led to Allied bombing of the factory, in the Baltic town of Peenemünde. This delayed the launching of the London blitz by several months.

Allen’s second walk-in was even more impressive. Fritz Kolbe, who contacted him through an intermediary and then came to the back door of Herrengasse 23 during a blackout, was a diplomat serving at the German foreign ministry in Berlin. Kolbe said he had access to all of the ministry’s incoming and outgoing cable traffic and, motivated by hatred for the Nazi regime, wanted to hand whatever he could to the Americans. He passed Allen documents by the hundreds. Among them were minutes of Hitler’s private meetings, damage assessments of Allied bombing campaigns, and clues that led to the discovery of a Nazi agent inside the British embassy in Turkey.

When Allen looked back over his OSS service in later years, he especially enjoyed recalling his role in two of the war’s most spectacular clandestine operations.

The first was the attempted assassination of Hitler. Through one of his senior agents, an anti-Nazi German who lived in Switzerland, Allen learned of the conspirators’ plot and the approximate date they would strike. As the date approached, they sent an emissary to meet him in Bern and propose a deal. If they could kill Hitler, they suggested, perhaps the Allies would alter their policy of demanding unconditional surrender from Germany and allow the country to come under a new regime without occupation. After consulting Washington, Allen replied with what he later called “an unconditional no.” The plotters proceeded without him. On July 12, 1944, he sent a cable to Donovan alerting him to the “possibility that a dramatic event may take place up north.” Eight days later the plotters struck, but the bomb they placed managed only to injure Hitler.

In the months after that failed attempt, it became clear that Germany would ultimately lose the war. Allen focused more intently than ever on a challenge he considered urgent: shaping post-war Europe in a way that would minimize Soviet power. His most audacious idea was to find Nazi commanders who recognized the futility of their cause and wished Germany to be ruled by Americans, not Russians, when the war ended. Once the Nazis were pushed out of France, the major active theater was Italy. Allen resolved to approach Nazi commanders there to see if they would ignore their fight-to-the-death orders and agree to a quick surrender.

At the end of 1944 and during the first months of 1945, Allen conceived and orchestrated Operation Sunrise, a multilayered plan that ultimately led to the Nazi surrender in Italy. One of his partners was General Karl Wolff, commander of SS forces there. A German court would later find Wolff complicit in the murder of 300,000 Jews, including the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, but by the end of the war he had fallen out with Hitler and was ready to deal with the Americans. Allen balanced Wolff’s needs against those of various Italian exile and partisan groups, which sent him a stream of emissaries seeking American support for various plots. The emissaries ranged from a future prime minister, Ferruccio Parri, to a daughter of the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, Countess Wally Toscanini Castelbarco, whom Allen promptly seduced. His climactic secret meeting with Nazi commanders was held at a lakeside villa outside the Swiss town of Ascona, a couple of miles from the Italian border. It produced a dramatic accord that led to the sudden end of war in Italy and also in Austria, over which Nazi commanders in Italy had authority. On May 3, 1945,Stars and Stripes reported the news jubilantly:

The German armies in Italy and in part of Austria have surrendered—completely and unconditionally.… This means that vital cities like Salzburg and Innsbruck are ours without a fight. It means that Allied forces take over Austrian territory within ten miles of Berchtesgaden, where Hitler built what he thought was a personal fortress so deep in the fastness of the Alps that it would take months or years to approach it.… But above all else, the surrender in Italy means that the valorous fighters of the 5th and 8th Armies, who have fought their way up the entire length of the relentless Apennines, need not begin the heartbreaking task of conquering the mountains that lead to the Brenner Pass and into Austria. It means, too, the fliers of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces need not go plunging into the flak alleys around Brenner Pass or other narrow passages among the Alps.

As the war wound down, Allen invited his wife to join him in Bern. Soon after she arrived, he introduced her to his mistress, Mary Bancroft. Clover had met several of Allen’s female companions and formed a remarkably strong bond with Mary. “I can see how much you and Allen care for one another, and I approve,” Clover told Mary soon after they met. They often lunched together, and took to referring to Allen and Foster as “the sharks” because they seemed to need constant motion in order to survive. Mary also introduced Clover to Carl Gustav Jung, whose help she sought in dealing with her troubled marriage; by Mary’s account it was shaped by enraged arguments “which Allen invariably won by the simple device of clamping an iron curtain between them.” Contact with Jung left a deep impression on both women. After the war Mary helped edit a Jungian journal in California. Clover promoted Jung’s work in New York, and her younger daughter, Joan, became a Jungian analyst.

Allen was present at the red schoolhouse in Reims on May 7, 1945, when General Alfred Jodl signed the instrument of surrender that ended World War II in Europe. A few weeks later he set out for Washington to discuss his future with Donovan—and to bask in the glory of Operation Sunrise. Churchill congratulated him personally when he stopped in London, and his opposite numbers in the British Secret Intelligence Service treated him like a hero. In Washington he was welcomed just as warmly. Donovan encouraged him to tell the story of Operation Sunrise publicly, and in September he published a breathless account of it in the Saturday Evening Post. In this article and in a longer version he published in 1966 as a book called The Secret Surrender, he portrayed the operation as a brilliant success that spared the Allies a longer war in Italy. Some historians later saw in it an early warning sign of the Cold War. The OSS had refused to let the Soviets in on the negotiations, leaving them feeling deceived and suspicious about America’s plans for post-war Europe.

“What had been gained by two months of dickering with the Nazis?” the historian Gar Alperovitz asked in a review of Allen’s book. “A mere six days. The fighting in Italy halted on May 2; the total collapse of the Reich was recorded on the evening of May 7–8. What had been lost? It is impossible to know precisely, but insofar as the possibility of peace depended on trust and mutual confidence, that possibility had been damaged. The Secret Surrender reminds us that the Cold War cannot be understood simply as an American response to a Soviet challenge, but rather as the insidious interaction of mutual suspicions, blame for which must be shared by all.”

With the war over, the OSS had little reason to maintain a station in Bern. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of intelligence work to do, and Allen decided that he should become director of OSS operations in Europe. Donovan, however, considered Allen “an artist of intelligence” but a terrible administrator, and would not give him the job. Instead he became chief of the new OSS station in Berlin. He arrived in the bombed-out city on June 20, 1945, exactly eleven months after the abortive bomb attack against Hitler that he had encouraged. His first two projects were oddly contradictory: gathering evidence to be used at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and integrating the legendary Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen and his far-flung espionage network into the OSS. Then, after he had been station chief for just three months, his assignment was cut short.

On September 20, 1945, the new American president, Harry Truman, signed an order abolishing the OSS. He feared that the secret powers it had accumulated during the war might, in peacetime, expand to threaten American democracy. To avoid this, he transferred the OSS research unit to the State Department and its espionage and counterespionage units to the War Department. Ten days after he issued his order, the OSS was no more.

The dissolution of the OSS cut Allen loose from his moorings. He had spent the war years in an adrenaline-charged secret world where any misstep could mean death or worse. Now he faced a new and in some ways more terrifying prospect: normal life at home.

*   *   *

The Dulles brothers were separated for most of World War II and followed strikingly different paths. Allen disappeared into the obscure world of espionage and covert action. Foster passed through a remarkable phase in which he spoke more fervently than ever for Christian principles and against selfish nationalism.

By the time Foster marked his fiftieth birthday in 1938, he was more influential than any other private lawyer in the United States. Nonetheless he was restive, and began to reflect on the future course of his life. He had his share of private disappointments; the vote to pull Sullivan & Cromwell out of Nazi Germany had shaken him, and he recognized his failure to build strong relationships with his children. The world seemed to be racing toward catastrophe. He began spending more time writing, speaking, and deepening his involvement in religious groups.

Foster’s re-encounter with the earnest Presbyterianism of his youth began when he traveled to Oxford in the summer of 1937 to participate in a gathering of Christian leaders called the World Conference on Church, Community, and State. Religious thinkers including Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and T. S. Eliot joined in far-ranging discussions about how Christians could help shape a more peaceful world. After returning home, Foster persuaded the Federal Council of Churches to create a platform from which he could speak out on political and moral issues. It emerged as the Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Durable Peace, and from 1940 to 1946 it was Foster’s platform, his megaphone, and the center of his intensifying public activism.

During this period of his life, Foster moved closer than ever to the ideals of global cooperation. He never became a full-fledged “one-worlder,” but he hammered relentlessly on the theme that self-defeating nationalism had caused devastating global conflicts that could be resolved only by new global organizations. Much of what he said and wrote seems startling in light of his post-war metamorphosis.

The society of nation-states, Foster asserted, had become a “society of anarchy,” proving that “the sovereignty system is no longer consonant either with peace or justice.” Americans in particular failed to see the urgent need for cooperation with other nations, and foolishly believed they could ensure their future security through “dependence on our strength alone.” Peace could be guaranteed only by “a kind of supranational guild” that would balance the interests of all nations. It would emerge in stages, beginning with “economic and financial union, letting the political union work out of them if and when this becomes a natural development.” People and nations should “avoid concentrating upon the admitted evils elsewhere, slurring over the admitted evils at home and thereby becoming, in my judgment, hypocritical and un-Christian.”

Religious imagery began pervading what Foster said and wrote. He urged statesmen to cultivate “Christ-like qualities” and “not to identify national self-interest with righteousness.” When news of the Bataan death march and other Japanese atrocities appeared in the press and a friend of his called them unforgivable, he replied, “Jesus Christ tells us that nothing is unforgivable.” In 1943 he published a remarkable treatise called Six Pillars of Peace in which he ridiculed the “devil theory” of global politics and rejected the image of the world as made up of a “nation-hero” surrounded by “nation-villains.” He scorned demagogues who “seek national unity by fomenting fear of other people,” promote “a feeling that their nation is in danger,” or “extol patriotism as the noblest emotion.”

Foster’s book, which also urged arms control, decolonization, and a new world organization, was widely discussed in the press, endorsed by the Rockefeller Foundation, and printed in a special edition for Protestant clergymen. Yet when he secured a meeting at the White House to present a copy to Franklin Roosevelt, he found the president preoccupied with winning the war and uninterested in discussing Christian imperatives. He hoped for a warmer reception in London, and through the American ambassador arranged a meeting with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and his undersecretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan. They too were unimpressed.

“Lunched with A. in his flat,” Cadogan wrote in his diary. “J. F. Dulles there … J. F. D. the wooliest type of useless pontificating American.… Heaven help us!”

As the 1944 presidential election approached, Foster returned to the side of his younger friend Thomas Dewey, who had been elected governor of New York and was making a second run for the presidency. He tutored Dewey on foreign affairs and wrote speeches for him. This time Dewey won the Republican nomination but was defeated decisively in the general election, as Roosevelt won his fourth term. Foster emerged from Dewey’s losing campaign as one of the Republican Party’s two senior foreign policy spokesmen, along with Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“To look at him you might think he had just finished contact with a green persimmon,” began a magazine profile of Foster that appeared during the 1944 campaign. “To listen to him on the subject of his business (he is top senior partner in the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell), you would only begin to guess that he can distill the poetry of action as well as a big income out of such things as reshuffling the corporate structure of the International Nickel Company.”

The war had not yet ended when Roosevelt summoned world leaders to San Francisco for the historic effort to create what became the United Nations. He had been persuaded that the American delegation should be bipartisan, and the Republicans proposed Foster as a “legal adviser.” Roosevelt was displeased.

“He will play it his way,” Roosevelt told Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. “He will leak things. He will be a disruptive force. I don’t like Foster Dulles. I won’t have him there.”

The Republicans insisted, and finally Roosevelt agreed to accept their choice. He died soon afterward, leaving Harry Truman to oversee the San Francisco talks.

From April 25 to June 26, 1945, delegates from fifty countries met at the San Francisco Opera House to design the new world body. During these nine weeks Foster was intensely in his element, pressing his views in public debates and private meetings. He and the other American delegates worked to shape the embryonic United Nations in ways that would serve American interests—ensuring, for example, that clauses on trusteeship and decolonization were worded so as not to threaten American control over Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico.

Reports in the American press depicted Foster as the wizard who managed the San Francisco conference from behind the scenes. They were the result of his practice of briefing reporters privately at the end of each day’s proceedings, usually placing himself at the center of events. This greatly irritated the delegation’s chairman, Secretary of State Stettinius, and its official spokesman, Adlai Stevenson, neither of whom had yet grasped the value of self-serving leaks.

Foster had become the only major figure in American public life who claimed both religious and political identities. While serving as the Republican Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, he also ran the Just and Durable Peace commission for the Federal Council of Churches. He was simultaneously chairman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an elder of the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, a trustee of both the Rockefeller Foundation and Union Theological Seminary.

Despite his broadening interests in politics and religion, Foster continued to devote most of his time and energy to his law practice. Demand for his expertise in German debt refinancing had evaporated in the firestorm of global conflict, and to compensate for lost clients he had acquired a set of new ones: non-Americans with large interests in the United States, including the governments of China and the Netherlands and the national banks of Belgium and Poland. He also remained an active board member of half a dozen corporations whose legal affairs he had overseen for years. The rebirth of the intense religiosity of his youth and his emergence as a major figure in the Republican Party coincided with an ever-broadening law practice specializing in global finance and quiet Washington lobbying.

One of the most productive relationships Foster developed in the 1940s was with the ambitious journalistic entrepreneur Henry Luce, who had become the country’s most powerful opinion maker. Luce’s views reached one million subscribers to Time, four million subscribers to Life, eighteen million listeners who heard The March of Time each week on the radio, countless more who watched The March of Time newsreels, and an elite business audience that subscribed to Fortune—by one estimate “at least a third and perhaps considerably more of the total literate adult population in the country.” No other media baron had anything approaching his reach or influence. His most famous article, “The American Century,” which appeared in the February 17, 1941, issue of Life, was a stirring call for “the most powerful and vital nation in the world” to embrace world leadership.

“We are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western Civilization,” Luce wrote. “It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse.”

Foster had much in common with Luce. Both were internationalist, pro-business Republicans shaped by Calvinist principles and the missionary tradition; Luce’s parents were missionaries, and he was born in China. Both believed Providence had ordained for the United States a unique role in the world. Both abhorred all forms of socialism, and saw in Moscow a godless tyranny dedicated to destroying the West. Fighting Communism was the challenge they believed history had assigned to their generation.

“The two Presbyterians, Luce and Dulles, would cause suspense and even terror in ensuing years because of their determination to reshape the world as closely as possible after the pattern of American transcendence,” one of Luce’s biographers has written. “Both had the good fortune of discovering that their religion and their politics were complementary.… Both Presbyterians were men of great mental vigor who sunk to narrowest parochialism in the area where the molten materials of their religion, patriotism, and politics fused into one cold and flinty mass. Such ferociously aggressive men were uncomfortable with ideological competition.… When either Luce or Dulles started talking about ‘America’s priceless spiritual heritage’ or ‘the hopes of all who love freedom,’ lesser nations had reason to become uneasy.”

Luce did as much as anyone to transmit the Cold War consensus to Americans. Somewhat unexpectedly, he found a partner in Foster, who was undergoing a remarkable transformation. In the space of less than a year, between late 1945 and the middle of 1946, Foster moved from preaching tolerance and forgiveness to promoting the “devil theory” he had formerly scorned. In a series of articles for Life, he painted a steadily more frightening picture of the Soviet threat. His first major volley was a two-part series, published in June 1946, entitled “Thoughts on Soviet Conduct and What to Do About It.” In it he set the urgent tone that defined how he, the Luce press, the Republican and Democratic parties, and most Americans would view the world for a generation.

Soviet leaders, Foster wrote, had launched a worldwide campaign that aimed to subjugate the West; to “eliminate what are, to us, the essentials of a free society”; and to impose on conquered peoples a system “repugnant to our ideals of humanity and fair play.” Already, he asserted, the Soviets had built a shadowy network of allies in non-Communist countries who pretended to be patriots but in reality “take much guidance from Moscow.” This made Soviet Communism the unseen force directing nationalist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

“Never in history have a few men in a single country achieved such world-wide influence,” he concluded.

Foster’s view of the Soviet Union as the center of a global conspiracy did not place him on the outer fringes of public opinion. At times he used a more melodramatic vocabulary than President Truman, Senator Vandenberg, Secretary of State George Marshall, and foreign policy mandarins like George Kennan and Averell Harriman, but all shared the same essential view that Soviet Communism was, in Kennan’s words, “a great political force intent on our destruction.”

In 1947, responding to Soviet pressure on Greece and Turkey, Truman decided that the United States should make a new commitment to intervene anywhere in the world to stop what it deemed to be the spread of Communism. When he told Vandenberg he planned to make this sweeping commitment, Vandenberg replied, “Mr. President, the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.” Truman took his advice. In a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, he unveiled the far-reaching global project that became known as the Truman Doctrine.

“Totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States,” the president asserted. “At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions.… The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

Congress accepted Truman’s worldview and appropriated the $400 million he requested for military aid to countries where Communist influence was seen to be growing. Some historians pinpoint this as the moment when the Cold War began in earnest, as the United States proclaimed that it considered the entire world a battleground between the superpowers. World events helped drive this view, but it also reflected impulses and attitudes deeply woven into the national psyche. They include, as the diplomatic historian Townsend Hoopes has written, “American commitment to individual liberty, American will-to-win, American resistance to half-measures, [and] American frustration with the psychological strain, the danger, the complexity, and the persisting inconclusiveness of a challenge that had to be met, yet could not be eliminated.”

In 1948 Foster traveled to Amsterdam for a religious assembly sponsored by the World Council of Churches. His speech was fiery, complete with vivid descriptions of the “diabolical outrages” perpetrated by Communist leaders, who he said “do not believe in such concepts as eternal justice,” embraced an ideology based on “evil, ignorance, and despair,” and were “conspiring to overwhelm mankind with awful disaster.” What made this speech remarkable was what followed: a spirited reply to Foster’s “grotesque distortions” from a prominent Czech-born theologian, Josef Hromadka, who had spent nearly a decade teaching theology at Princeton. Hromadka urged that the atheism of Communist leaders be understood as a reaction to the misuse of religion by the czars, “rather a tool and weapon of an anti-bourgeois and anti-feudal political propaganda than a distinctive faith.” It was unfair, he added, to compare Soviet Communism with “democratic institutions and processes originated, grown and perfected under an utterly different historical sky.” Instead it should be seen as a “historical necessity in a country consisting of multiple ethnic, in part culturally backward elements, and in a nation which for many reasons had not been privileged to enjoy political liberties and popular education.”

The official report of the Amsterdam assembly included long quotes from this speech and only a couple of brief lines from Foster’s. He saw this as reflecting a dangerous weakening of Christian resolve in the face of peril, and the drift of Protestant theology toward “left wing and socialist tendencies.”

Foster’s newfound militancy was the final stage of a political voyage that stretched over a quarter century. He had always hated Bolshevism, but in the 1920s he recognized the Soviet Union as disorganized, economically prostrate, and no threat to the West. In 1924 he described America’s refusal to recognize its government as an “absurdity.” For much of the 1930s he focused his attention on defending Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism as an ideology, but once the United States entered the war in 1941 and became a military ally of the Soviets, American criticism of the Soviet system was muffled. During the war years, Foster saw the Soviet Union as a conventional big power, protective of its own interests and rationally weighing its relations with other countries. As late as the San Francisco Conference of June 1945, at which the United Nations was founded, he publicly urged Western leaders to “proceed on the assumption that Russia will come to practice genuine cooperation.”

For much of his life, Foster had believed that the root of conflict and global instability was the failure of nations to cooperate. After the war he abandoned this view. In his new theology, threats to peace came not from the recklessness of nations, but the recklessness of one nation: the Soviet Union.

What led Foster to this turnaround? His own explanation was twofold. First, he said he had never before thought deeply enough about the nature of Communism to develop “a clear understanding of the fundamentals.” He began obsessively reading and rereadingProblems of Leninism, a collection of Stalin’s essays and speeches. By one account he “owned six or more pencil-marked copies, and kept one in each of his work places.” To him it was a revelation: a chilling blueprint for world conquest, to be achieved by weakening rival powers and seizing control of emerging nationalist movements.

The October Revolution has shaken imperialism not only in the centers of its domination, not only in the “metropolises.” It has also struck at the rear of imperialism, its periphery.… Having sown the seeds of revolution both in the centers of imperialism and in its rear, having weakened the might of imperialism in the “metropolises,” and having shaken its domination in the colonies, the October Revolution has thereby put in jeopardy the very existence of world capitalism as a whole.

At least as important as Foster’s immersion in Problems of Leninism was what he called the “very great transformation” in Soviet behavior. Within two years of the war’s end, the Soviets had sought to intimidate Iran and Turkey, had supported Communist fighters in the Greek civil war, and had imposed pro-Moscow regimes in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Foster saw this as evidence that Stalin was pursuing precisely the aggressive strategy he had publicly proclaimed.

In speeches and articles, Foster began warning that Soviet leaders were bent on “eradicating the non-Soviet type of society,” and that if the United States did not strike back, an “alien faith will isolate us and press in on us to a point where we shall be faced with surrender or with new war.” He painted the Soviet Union as pursuing not simply age-old Russian strategic goals, but power over the whole world; it posed to the West not just the sort of threat that assertive powers have always posed to one another, but “a challenge to established civilization—the kind of thing which occurs only once in centuries.”

“In the tenth century after Christ the so-called Christian world was challenged by an alien faith,” he wrote. “The tide of Islam flowed from Arabia and swept over much of Christendom.… Now another ten centuries have rolled by and the accumulated civilization of these centuries is faced with another challenge. This time the challenge is Soviet Communism.”

This was not only harsher rhetoric than Foster had ever used against Communism, but also far surpassed any criticism he had ever made of Nazism. The threat posed by Communism seemed to him infinitely greater. He had come to recognize Nazism as an ideology that led to great crimes, but during the 1930s he accepted it because he considered its identity essentially Western, Christian, and capitalist. Communism was none of those. In it Foster saw something he never saw in Nazism: an ultimate evil with which no compromise could ever be possible.

“The outlook for world peace seems to be getting dull, duller, Dulles,” lamented Frank Kingdon, a Methodist minister and columnist for the New York Post.

Occasionally a voice emerged to offer a less apocalyptic view of Soviet intentions. The columnist Walter Lippmann urged Americans to “stop beating our heads against stone walls under the illusion that we have been appointed policeman to the human race,” and warned that Washington’s fixation on the Cold War “is misconceived, and must result in a misuse of American power.” These warnings, however, were overwhelmed by a fast-developing national consensus that the world had been divided between godly forces and others that were evil. John Foster Dulles gave voice to that belief.

“We are the only great nation whose people have not been drained, physically and spiritually,” he declared in one speech. “It devolves upon us to give leadership in restoring principle as a guide to conduct. If we do not do that, the world will not be worth living in. Indeed, it will probably be a world in which human beings cannot live.”

This stridency drew Foster apart from the era’s most eminent Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The two had served together on the Just and Durable Peace commission and shared a passionate interest in the application of ethics to global politics. Niebuhr, however, never sought a political role. Instead he remained reflective, and was uncomfortable with Foster’s emerging good-versus-evil view of the world. It contradicted his own belief in moral ambiguity, the danger of self-righteousness, the imperfection of human institutions, and what he called “the similarity between our sin and the guilt of others.” Foster believed the principal threat to the United States came from Moscow; Niebuhr saw it in the egotism of Americans and their leaders.

“If we should perish,” Niebuhr warned, “the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a great nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle, and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history, but by hatred and vainglory.”

Such introspection is rarely popular in any country, and in any case Niebuhr emerged only slowly as a public intellectual. Foster, meanwhile, continued making news as the Republican member of American diplomatic missions. Several times he clashed dramatically with Andrei Vishinsky, the fire-breathing Soviet deputy foreign minister, who had been chief prosecutor at Stalin’s grotesque Great Purge trials. He would later write that Vishinsky’s arrogant intransigence was for him “a streak of lightning that suddenly illuminated a dark and stormy scene. We saw as never before the magnitude of the task of saving Europe for Western civilization.”

Vishinsky combined a confrontational style with an absolute insistence on squeezing every bit of advantage for his side, which he believed embodied the future of humanity. During one summit he was so relentlessly demanding that American delegates retreated to regroup. One of them wondered aloud what Vishinsky might have become if he had been born and raised in the United States.

“Why, there’s no doubt about it,” General Walter Bedell Smith answered. “He would have been senior partner at Sullivan & Cromwell.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!