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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Allen Dulles

A chapter of my upcoming book Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement” is devoted to Allen Welsh Dulles. Dulles may seem a curious choice to include in a book about successful public administrators. As the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a federal spy agency with a decidedly controversial reputation, Dulles built the secretive organization into a juggernaut that has not always met with public approval. Moreover, he left office under a cloud following the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion.


The points are well taken. Despite these well-known failures, Dulles crafted a remarkably successful career that saw him rise to the pinnacle of government service. He acted during an era when many Americans believed that the nation’s enemies were closing in and must be dealt with using extreme measures, even if those measures fell out of favor in subsequent times.


Dulles was born on April 7, 1893, in Watertown, New York, to a presbyterian minister, Allen Macy Dulles, and Edith (Foster) Dulles. He was one of five children who hailed from an illustrious family. Dulles’s maternal grandfather, John W. Foster, served as secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison. His uncle by marriage, Robert Lansing, was Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state. His older brother, John Foster Dulles, served as secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. His younger sister, Eleanor Lansing Dulles, became a prominent diplomat and held several posts in the U.S. State Department.


Allen Dulles graduated from Princeton University and, in keeping with the family tradition, entered the diplomatic service. He married Martha “Clover” Todd, and the couple produced three children. Dulles engaged in numerous extramarital affairs throughout his life, rationalizing the behavior by insisting that such dalliances were the perquisites of a man in his position.


His first assignment in the diplomatic service was in Vienna. He later transferred to Bern, Switzerland. Always anxious to prove his bona fides, Dulles later claimed that Vladimir Lenin telephoned him to request a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Bern in April 1918, shortly before Lenin left Switzerland for Germany. The tale may have been apocryphal, a means of boosting Dulles’ importance.


Along with his older brother, John Foster, Dulles attended the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the Great War as part of the American delegation. It was an auspicious posting for a young man who intended to pursue a career in the foreign service. During the 1920s, he continued his career as the chief of the Near East division of the State Department.


His career was closely tethered to his brother’s service. After earning a law degree from George Washington University, Allen Dulles joined the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, where his brother was a partner. The following year, he became a director at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the organization’s secretary for 11 years beginning in 1933.


Like his older brother, Allen Dulles evinced a deep interest in foreign policy. He became a legal adviser to the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. He met with many world leaders during the 1930s, including Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and other high-ranking Nazis. Dulles believed that the growing alarm about the rise of Fascism in Europe was overblown, an opinion that would eventually fall out of favor. He later expressed concerns about the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, which led to his law firm’s decision to close its Berlin office.


During the 1930s, the Republican Party establishment divided into two camps, the isolationists and the interventionists, or internationalists. Dulles was decidedly in the latter camp. He believed that American foreign policy must engage with the world. Technology and international interests made developments in other countries of vital concern to the United States. Gone were the days when the United State could depend on the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans to shield them from world events. In the late 1930s, Dulles coauthored two books, Can We Be Neutral? and Can America Stay Neutral? with Foreign Affairs magazine editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong. Dulles also campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to represent the Sixteenth Congressional District of New York. He made his belief that the United States should build up its defense capabilities a crucial plank in his platform.


For all his faults as a practitioner of realpolitik, Dulles was not without sympathy for endangered peoples. He recognized the existential threat of Nazi Germany well before the outbreak of war, and he assisted German Jews in fleeing from Germany. Dulles was concerned that the United States eventually would be dragged into the war between Germany and the western democracies, and he believed that national leaders should be prepared.


To that end, Dulles agreed to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in October 1941 when its director, William J. Donovan, recruited him two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the war. The need for timely, accurate intelligence was crucial to any nation that was or would soon be engaged in war.


In November 1942, Dulles moved to Bern, Switzerland, to serve as the Swiss OSS director. He remained there for the rest of the war. His task was to cultivate contacts that could inform him about German plans and actions. Dulles proved to be adept at clandestine service. He was a realist who eschewed all sentimentality. Among his contacts, he escaped a relationship with Gero von Schulze-Gaevernitz, a German economist who later helped to negotiate the surrender of a million Nazis at war’s end. The United States awarded Schulze-Gaevernitz the Medal of Freedom for his actions. Dulles also secured assistant from Fritz Kolbe, a German diplomat who became a spy for the Allies, providing invaluable information and documents on German activities and aircraft, especially the Messerschmitt Me 262, a German fighter-bomber.


Dulles’ extensive contacts keep him well-informed on German military maneuvers and technological advances. Contacts within the Austrian resistance informed the Americans on a variety of sensitive topics, including development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets, tank developments, and aircraft improvements. Through his network of spies, Dulles learned of the location armament manufacturing facilities, information that he passed along to Allied bombers. He also gathered intelligence on the Nazis’ final solution to the Jewish problem. The Allies debated the best way to use this information. Should they bomb the Auschwitz camp to interrupt the mass murder of Jews and other undesirables, or would the cause be better served by focusing on winning the war as quickly as possible? The Allies chose the latter course, a decision that has been debated and second-guessed endlessly since the end of World War II, when the full extent of the Holocaust became clear.


As the war wound to a close, Dulles was aware of the plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. His superiors forbade Dulles from offering concrete assistance—Washington was not prepared for the Nazi retaliation if the plot failed, and the Americans’ involvement became known—but the spy chief was in contact with the conspirators. He offered private assurances that the Allies would look favorably upon negotiations to end the war with a successor to the Hitler regime.


American military and civilian leaders looked ahead to the gargantuan tasks associated with defeating the Germans and their allies and governing a postwar Europe. In March 1945, when it was evident that the war would end in weeks or months, Dulles engaged in what became known as Operation Sunrise, an effort to arrange the surrender of German forces in northern Italy. Dulles assured his principal liaison, SS General Karl Wolff, that the general would not be prosecuted for war crimes if he successfully surrendered the forces under his command. Dulles endured heavy criticism after the war for providing such generous terms to General Wolff. At a time when the U.S.-Soviet alliance was strained at war’s end, this leniency toward Wolff and the Nazi forces in northern Italy created a diplomatic incident between the two superpowers.


Dulles served as the OSS station chief in Berlin for six months. By October 1945, with the war safely ended, the United States chose to dissolve the OSS, transferring its duties to the State Department and Defense Department. Although he was no longer involved in OSS activities, Dulles remained well-connected and interested in foreign policy and intelligence. In 1947, he served on the Select Committee on Foreign Aid, commonly called the Herter Committee, after the vice chairman, Congressman Christian A. Herter of Massachusetts. The Herter Committee studied the Marshall Plan for rebuilding war-torn Europe, agreeing that Communism represented a grave threat to democratic governments.


As the 1948 presidential election approached, Dulles and his brother advised the Republican nominee, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Along with Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, the brothers helped to create the Office of Policy Coordination, which became part of the newly established Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1949, Dulles co-authored the Dulles–Jackson–Correa Report, an influential assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the CIA.


Owing to his long record of service in intelligence service, Dulles was the natural choice for a role in the CIA. Water Bedell Smith, director of central intelligence, approached Dulles and asked him to serve as deputy director for plans in the CIA. In this position, Dulles would oversee the CIA’s covert operations. He stepped into the new job in January 1951. In August of that year, Dulles became deputy director of central intelligence, the number two position in the agency. A year later, he was one of five members on the State Department Panel of Consultants on Disarmament, also known as the Oppenheimer Panel. The panel made recommendations about providing transparency in the development of nuclear weapons as a means of preventing a nuclear arms race.


When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in January 1953, DCI Smith moved into a position at the State Department. Dulles became the first civilian director of central intelligence. This role was the apex of his public career.


The new president was concerned about the development of Col War policy under the outgoing Truman administration. The Eisenhower administration was determined to balance Cold War military commitments with the nation’s financial resources. This “New Look” policy relied on strategic use of nuclear weapons as well as a reorganization of conventional forces. As CIA director, Dulles was at the center of this new national security policy. His brother, John Foster Dulles, became Eisenhower’s secretary of state.


Early in Eisenhower’s tenure, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin initiated a witch hunt for Communist agents working inside the government. McCarthy issued subpoenas to the CIA to determine whether the agency was infested with subversives. Dulles asked the president to intercede with McCarthy to cease and desist from issuing subpoenas to the agency. Dulles feared that public disclosure of the CIA’s many clandestine operations would compromise the security of field agents. Eisenhower agreed. Decades later, researchers learned that CIA operatives broke into McCarthy’s Senate office and provided Dulles with false information in hopes of discrediting the senator.


As the Cold War continued and American presidents sought advantages over the Soviet Union, Dulles’ power and prestige grew. From its modest origins as a clearinghouse for intelligence information, Dulles urged the agency to branch out into operations. Relying on his vast intelligence networks, he resolved to contain Soviet power across the globe, and he had at least the tacit backing of his superiors. To achieve these goals, the CIA launched a covert mission to remove the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in favor of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was viewed as an American pawn. A year later, the CIA led a coup d’état against President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala, who had been a problem for the Eisenhower administration. These operations eventually harmed the CIA’s reputation when they became known during the 1970s, but during the Cold War many government insiders believed they were necessary to check the spread of Communism throughout the world.


Dulles was always interested in technological advances and their potential use in spy craft. During the early 1950s, the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation had designed a surveillance airplane that came to be known as a U-2. The aircraft had wings shaped like sails and it could fly at high altitude, thereby avoiding anti-aircraft fire. In Dulles’ view, the U-2 would prove to be an ideal airplane for conducting surveillance over enemy territory. The aircraft went into service in 1957.


The U-2 provided valuable intelligence, but flights over the Soviet Union were risky. With the United States government denying that the aircraft was used for surveillance, intelligence officials worried that a downed U-2 could cause an international incident by exposing the nation’s duplicity. CIA planners believed that they had prepared for exactly this contingency. They instructed U-2 pilots to commit suicide with drugs in their possession. Because the U-2 aircraft operated at a high altitude, planners believed that the cockpit would be obliterated on impact.


This nightmare scenario occurred on May 1, 1960, when a Soviet Air Defense surface-to-air missile shot down a U-2 plane conducting aerial photography over Soviet territory. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, did not commit suicide. He was captured alive. The U-2 aircraft did not disintegrate on impact. The Americans initially claimed that a civilian weather research aircraft had been shot down, but eventually they had to admit that the U-2 was a spy plane. It was a humiliating admission for the United States, and especially for the CIA.


As the CIA head, Dulles bore his share of responsibility for the U-2 fiasco, but the incident was not fatal to his career. He retained his position as Eisenhower left office and John F. Kennedy became the new president on January 20, 1961. An incident early in Kennedy’s administration, however, led to Dulles’ dismissal and the ignominious end of a once illustrious career.


Kennedy, like Eisenhower before him, was worried that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s regime represented a strong threat to the power and prestige of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. In conjunction with CIA operations, Kennedy’s aides searched for a means, overt or covert, to remove Castro from his position. After exploring a variety of strange and fanciful plans to assassinate the Cuban leader, they signed onto a plan that had been hatched under the previous administration to arm Cuban exiles and send them back to Cuba to lead a popular uprising.


In retrospect, the plan was riddled with design and operational problems. The new president made it clear that any armed action against the Cubans must not be viewed as an American operation. Instead, an uprising must be seen as an unplanned, popular insurrection led by the Cuban people to take back their homeland from a brutal dictator. Insisting on secrecy, the CIA began training the exiles in Guatemala. The exiles were told that a wealthy Cuban exile was paying their bills, but they were not fooled.


Castro was not fooled, either. His spies kept him informed of the exiles’ plans. In fact, the CIA-backed operation was the worst-kept secret in the Latin American world. The idea that 1,500 guerillas could train, gather the necessary supplies and arms, and land in Cuba to trigger a popular uprising without the assistance of the United States or another nation backing the enterprise was ludicrous. After the operation failed, President Kennedy repeatedly asked himself how he could have been so foolish.


CIA director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director for Plans Richard M. Bissell Jr., and Deputy Director Charles Cabell became the fall guys for the fiasco, and rightly so. They resigned in disgrace. On November 28, 1961, President Kennedy awarded Dulles the National Security Medal at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as a means of placating the old man and easing him into retirement. Dulles resigned the next day.



It was a terrible way to end a long and mostly successful career, but Dulles was not quite finished. A week after President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson appointed Dulles to serve on the Warren Commission, which was tasked with investigating the incident. Detractors charged that Dulles should not have been appointed owing to his strained relationship with Kennedy following Dulles’ firing. Skeptics believed that Johnson had appointed Dulles so that the former CIA director could ensure that Kennedy’s secrets about plots to eliminate Fidel Castro would never be revealed.


Even in retirement, Dulles remained active. He wrote books, including The Craft of Intelligence (1963), and edited Great True Spy Stories (1968). In 1966, Princeton University’s American Whig–Cliosophic Society (Whig-Clio), a student debating club formed before the American revolution, awarded Dulles the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service.


Allen Dulles died on January 29, 1969, owing to complications from influenza and pneumonia. He was 75 years old. He was buried in the historic Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.


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