“Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles” By Peter Grose (Houghton Mifflin, 641 pages, $30)
The Dulles who is probably best known now is John Foster, or Foster, as his family and intimates called him. He is the one after whom the international airport in Washington is named. He was secretary of state from 1952 until shortly before his death in 1959, the third member of his family to hold that position, after his grandfather, John Watson Foster, who served under President William McKinley, and his uncle, Robert Lansing, who was secretary of state in the Woodrow Wilson administration.
But Foster’s younger brother, Allen, although necessarily less visible, played almost as prominent a role in U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century, first as a diplomat during World War I, then in the Office of Strategic Services in Europe during World War II and finally as the director of Central Intelligence from 1951 to 1961.
Peter Grose, in his absorbingly detailed biography, “Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles,” brings his subject to life with stature equal to his brother’s.
But what is most revealing in this portrait is how different the two of them were and yet how emotionally close to each other they remained. Grose leaves the impression that they consulted each other regularly throughout their careers, no matter how far apart they might be geographically or philosophically.
In this book’s view, Allen seems to have defined himself in contrast to his brother, to have played the grasshopper to Foster’s ant. As Grose’s relaxed narrative tells it, Allen, when confronted with Foster’s “intellectual prowess,” found “a different style of personality: from an early age he set out to make people like him.”
The author concludes: “Across the diverse exploits of his public life, even those who disagreed with him could not help but like him. With his brother, Foster, it was often precisely the opposite.”
Certainly a sense of Allen’s bonhomie comes across on almost every page of this biography, which treats him almost affectionately, even when it is most critical of him.
His tweedy persona is even a little frightening in the way it radiates joviality no matter if he is plotting the assassination of some political leader or arranging the overthrow of a government or simply spinning his expanding web of spies.
One is forced to wonder why this brilliant son of a Presbyterian minister, whose precocity was endlessly encouraged, would end up a master of deception whose favorite response to probing questions was, in Grose’s endlessly repeated locution, to emit a hearty ho ho ho!
The book’s more personal details present Allen Dulles as someone who kept his wife, his children, his friends and his mistresses carefully compartmentalized.
Grose, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and the executive editor of Foreign Affairs, presents Allen as a man of principle and a conscientious patriot who recognized a need for gathering sensitive intelligence in the Cold War and made it his profession to do so.
If things eventually went wrong, and in Grose’s view they most decidedly did, the problem was not so much some fatal flaw in Allen’s character as a matter of slapdash administration, of increasingly sloppy habits. As Grose sees it, the Central Intelligence Agency grew rigid in its view of what constituted a serious communist threat and what did not.
What began as sporadic exaggerations of local incidents into communist plots ended up becoming habitual. Every flaw in Allen’s administration was exposed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which finally cost him his job as the director of Central Intelligence in 1961.
Most curious in Grose’s account is that these flaws sound more like a reflection of Foster Dulles’ thinking than of Allen’s. In contrast to Foster’s famously categorical opposition to communism, Allen, at least early in his career, saw a need for flexibility in the U.S. response to Bolshevism.
The brothers contended over this issue throughout their careers, with Allen taking the side of the pragmatist and Foster being rigidly legalistic. Their positions seemed to mirror their personalities.
Yet by the time of Foster’s death in 1959, the two seem to have reversed positions. In a recorded memory of his last days with his brother, Allen quoted what he described as Foster’s “last legacy of thought to me”: “The Soviets sought not a place in the sun, but the sun itself. Their objective was the world. They would not tolerate compromise on goals, only on tactics.”
Yet paradoxically, in the final year of his life, Foster had softened his views insofar as he expressed them in meetings of the National Security Council. The Council’s minutes record this comment by Foster, “Doubtless the ultimate intentions of the Soviet Union were still bad, but their behavior, at least, was better, and ultimately the Soviets may become more civilized.”
Grose concludes, “The irony is that after Foster had come around to Allen’s more measured perspectives … Allen chose to perpetuate his brother’s original dogma.”
So while “Gentleman Spy” is far more a painstakingly detailed narrative of a life than a psychobiography, nevertheless an intriguing psychological portrait does glimmer through.
The narrative sums up the last years of Allen’s career this way: “He seemed to assume an obligation to carry on his late brother’s anti-communist mission in its purest form. Without Foster, as Allen found himself alone in carrying the legacy of a proud Presbyterian family dedicated to public service, his instincts dulled, his zest at work lost its edge.”