Magazine article The Spectator

Keeping a Finger in the Pie

Magazine article The Spectator

Keeping a Finger in the Pie

Article excerpt


by James Srodes

Regnery, $34.95, pp. 624

This full and fascinating biography deals with one of the cen formative figures, less in the public eye than his elder brother John Foster Dulles who was secretary of state and apostle of nuclear deterrence at the depth of the Cold War, but hardly less influential where it mattered.

The brothers are often, wrongly, described as patricians. They went to good tailors; but their father was nothing grander than a Presbyterian minister on a modest salary. It turned out a help that their mother's father, General Foster, had among many careers been for a few months secretary of state; and it helped still more that an aunt married Robert Lansing, who held the same post in Woodrow Wilson's second presidency. Both John Foster and Allen did well as law students at Yale; and both entered the American diplomatic service, rising to participate in the peace congress at Paris that met in 1919-20 after the end of the first world war.

During the war, Allen had served successively in Vienna and in Berne, early winning friends and influencing people. As an elderly man, he had a reputation as a raconteur, and was fond of a tale going back to the spring of 1917. Just after five on a Friday evening, the legation telephone in Berne rang. The rest of the staff had left already. Dulles told the caller, who insisted on speaking to someone in authority, that the office was closed till Monday morning, and went off to keep a tennis appointment with a pretty girl. By Monday morning the caller, who was Lenin, was already sealed into a train for Finland, whence he was to start the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

It is still unclear whether, on his way from Washington to Vienna, Dulles was given some basic training in what the secret services still like to call tradecraft by the British as he passed through London. All through his working life, he was aware of the need for Anglo-American cooperation; equally, he was always prepared to steal a march on the Brits if fair occasion to do so offered. Srodes writes with quiet authority on Dulles's secret service career, taking care to explain when he is relying on documents and when he is quoting memories (which are more likely to be fallible); when papers have not yet been released, he does not pretend to guess what might be in them. …

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