Throughout the first decades following Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, numerous scholars and public intellectuals piled criticism upon disparagement of the World War II hero’s political career. Many also ignored, minimized, or denigrated Eisenhower’s public religiosity during his eight years in office. However, in the past few decades, numerous scholars have revised the original assessments of Eisenhower’s effectiveness. And in just the last few years, other authors have acknowledged both the sincerity and the significance of Eisenhower’s Christian faith as a significant component of his character, worldview, and policies. These twin pillars of Eisenhower revisionism make the scholarly community’s neglect of John Foster Dulles—Eisenhower’s prominent and long-serving secretary of state—particularly curious. Despite the dramatic rise in conventional assessments of Eisenhower (now routinely rated by scholars to be in the top five of all US presidents), his undeniably influential and hard-working secretary of state has enjoyed no such rehabilitation. Critics, then and since, have labeled him as dour, pompous, moralistic, and self-righteous. As author John Wilsey states in God’s Cold Warrior, Dulles “cannot seem to escape the decades-long curse of being the butt of a joke” (203). More significantly, scholars accuse him of having been an overzealous ideologue and anti-communist crusader whose penchant for “brinksmanship” made him all too willing to risk nuclear war; one survey of historians ranked Dulles among the five worst secretaries of state in American history. Furthermore, Dulles (unlike Eisenhower, who was presumed to be non-religious for most of his professional life) was well-known to be a devout churchman and one of the world’s leading Christian statesmen even before he joined the Eisenhower administration. His religiosity has been universally acknowledged and uniformly included in any brief description of him. Richard Immerman writes that Dulles was “virtually an Old Testament figure.”[1]

Despite these facts, John Wilsey’s new book is the only full-life biography of Dulles that thoroughly investigates his religious life and the ways his faith influenced his professional and personal lives. Wilsey has written a gracious, but not uncritical, survey of Dulles’ life and career, and he succeeds in the difficult task of explaining how Dulles’s well-known religiosity as well as his less-well-understood religiously grounded worldview influenced him as a statesman, a churchman, a family man, and ultimately, a human. An associate professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wilsey has written two previous books on the role of religion in American life, and he demonstrates a mastery of the ways Dulles’ life influenced, and was influenced by, the major trends in America’s complicated religious history. Readers who are exclusively interested in Dulles the secretary of state should be aware that this relatively brief account (204 pages) of a long, full, and complicated life faithfully executes its stated mission of tracing the “intellectual, moral, and religious patterns… throughout the life of a lawyer, churchman, and diplomat” (ix). Such readers might be surprised, and perhaps disappointed, that Wilsey only allocates one 17-page chapter to Dulles’ long, fascinating, and controversial tenure as America’s chief diplomat. But for those who truly want to understand Dulles the man, as well as Dulles the Christian statesman, Wilsey’s thoughtful coverage of the equally interesting, more foundational, and less well-known earlier years of Dulles’ life are critical. For many scholars, Dulles has remained an enigmatic figure, and while he—like many complex individuals—probably will resist any simple characterization, Wilsey’s balanced study will be essential to anyone who truly wants to understand the heart, soul, and mind of a man who was one of the most significant and influential American statesmen in the twentieth century.

A book such as this needs to answer some crucial questions: How, and in what ways, did Dulles’ religious beliefs and perspectives affect his behavior, decisions, and policy proposals? Does a deeper understanding of his religious views help us to understand the man and the statesman? As Wilsey demonstrates, any serious attempt to understand Dulles must move beyond the typical, bland assertion that he was religious, or a Christian, or even a life-long Presbyterian, and get at the deeper question of what kind of Christian he was. According to Wilsey, Dulles was steeped in the modernist, progressive Protestantism of his pastor father. He grew up in a devout home; attended church multiple times each week; prayed, sang hymns, and discussed sermons with his family; and routinely read the Bible, memorizing and even reciting portions of it. Though he had periods of his adult life when church-going appears to have been less regular, he remained a devout, modernist Presbyterian throughout his life. But as Wilsey makes clear, despite Dulles’ intellectual disposition (valedictorian in the Princeton class of ’08, study at the Sorbonne, and completion of George Washington University’s law program in just two years while finishing at the top of his class), he was “not interested in theological ideas, nor did he have a deeply considered system of dogmatic convictions rooted in Scripture or the Protestant intellectual tradition” (189). Nor does he appear to have had a vibrant devotional life. Of course, far from this making Dulles exceptional, even among regular, committed churchgoers, it really suggests he was a fairly typical Christian. What did resonate with Dulles was Christianity’s assertion of objective morality, which was firm, universal, and essential. Dulles’ apparent disinterest in theology, combined with his “firm basis in moral law”—grounded in a biblical worldview—meant that he became “a religious man in a position of great power in the United States government,” whose “religion was primarily ethical” (189).

This balanced biography gives substantial coverage to Dulles’ extraordinary professional life before becoming the nation’s chief diplomat and one of Eisenhower’s most trusted advisers. He began his career as a young foreign affairs specialist even before graduating from college, by serving as the personal secretary to his grandfather—Secretary of State John W. Foster—during the Second Hague Convention of 1910. In 1919 he accompanied his former Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson as a member of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He then became a remarkably successful international business attorney at a leading Wall Street firm, for which he became the managing partner by the age of 38. During these years he also played important roles in various Presbyterian disputes related to the struggles between the denomination’s modernists and fundamentalists. During Dulles’ advocacy on behalf of the modernists, he took an organizational and constitutional angle, as opposed to a theological or doctrinal approach, thus demonstrating his concern for moral order and proper procedure, as well as an appreciation for preserving individual freedom and Christian unity. While Wilsey makes clear that Dulles remained a liberal Presbyterian throughout his life, the author does not provide much direct evidence of which, if any, specific modernist positions Dulles personally maintained (perhaps because the historical record doesn’t provide it). What is clear is that Dulles’ faith continued to value ecumenicalism, and it led him to push the global Christian community to engage more passionately on issues of international peace, freedom, and human dignity. He increasingly sought to promote the universality entailed in the assertion of “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” while speaking and writing on themes that expressed the hope that “it was the Christian churches which could be looked to for the life of mankind,” as well as the concern that too much of the church had lost its vitality. He feared that “church membership had ceased to be synonymous with dangerous and difficult living for a high ideal” (118). Exactly which high ideals were most important to Dulles was not always clear (was it the Gospel or the social gospel?), but the preservation and promotion of human freedom and dignity, along with establishing systems and processes that encouraged peaceful resolution to international problems, appear to have been of particular concern. He stressed the danger of seeing only good in oneself and one’s country, and only evil in others. By 1939, his understanding of the moral law, along with his ecumenicalism and internationalism, led him to “constantly strive not to identify national self-interest with righteousness,” to the point that he was painfully slow to categorically condemn the Axis powers even after the invasion of China and the fall of France (122). But by 1942, Dulles had seen enough from these enemies to begin a remarkable transformation in the way he understood the need to apply the moral law in ideological conflicts against regimes “controlled by… demonic forces,” and motivated by faiths that were “shot through with evil” (139). Dulles carried this view forward into the post-war world, in which, after Soviet words and deeds crushed his guarded optimism for continued cooperation, he increasingly saw atheistic communists as a threat to the moral order and all he held dear. They, like the Nazis, had to be resisted at all costs, and ultimately defeated for the good of the nation, and indeed the entire world. While some scholars suggest that Dulles’ shift from a peace-loving internationalist to hard-core Cold Warrior grew out of a major shift in his worldview, Wilsey convincingly argues that the transformation, though real, was not a wholesale rejection of his previous moral principles, but merely an adjustment in how the moral law needed to be applied in a new context.

While Dulles had high ideals and was committed to the hard work involved with arranging the international order to maximize peace and prosperity, he was also a “pragmatic realist” who understood that international peace and cooperation were not the only values worth achieving (144). He was also committed to ensuring human freedom and individual dignity, and in the struggles against essentially “wicked” regimes—like the communists of the Cold War (as with the Nazis before them)—the effort to defend the moral law, both in the international community and in the lives of individuals, meant taking a hard line against forces that not only rejected God, but were hostile to Him and to all semblance of His moral law (146). While Dulles was committed to defending the US and the rest of the free world, the universality of the moral law as it applied to human freedom and individual dignity called for the ultimate goal of liberating those souls trapped under godless, tyrannical communist rule. But Dulles had not given up on his desire for international peace and cooperation, even in the global struggle against the communists. While America’s size, strength, and especially its exceptional commitment to Christian ideals meant that it had a special role to play in leading the free world, Dulles was fully committed to maximizing the benefits of collective security and to hinging the defense of the free world on deterrence. In his understanding, even the ultimate liberation of the Soviet-dominated peoples was to be achieved peacefully—if the free world could deter future communist offensives and, under the pressure of the free world’s morally sound examples and proclamations, hold on until the Soviet system collapsed from its own internal contradictions. While it was not unreasonable for people to be scared by the threatening sounds of such terms as “liberation,” “massive retaliation,” and “brinksmanship,” the years of peace and prosperity during the Eisenhower—and Dulles—years, as well as the eventual, and generally peaceful, collapse of the Soviet system suggest that Dulles might have been on the right track (though it took longer than he sometimes suggested it would take).

In the end, Wilsey agrees with scholar Will Inboden that “religion helped shape the basic worldview of many American elites,” whose “actions in turn grew out of this worldview” (204). For Dulles, his own “dynamic faith” is the key to understanding both Dulles the internationalist and Dulles the Cold Warrior (xi). Whether his commitment to the moral law led to any personal angst or self-criticism over America’s own arguably immoral policies, such as helping to topple legitimate regimes in Guatemala and Iran, is not clear. Wilsey does not suggest that he even recognized the serious moral issues at stake in such covert actions.

Throughout this study, Wilsey includes enough detail of Dulles’ private life to show the very different personality he revealed to his friends and family: adventurous, humorous, a lover of animals, nature, and especially of sailing. But beyond more fully humanizing this complicated public servant, Wilsey has shown the myriad ways Dulles’ particular Christian faith and religious perspectives contributed to the worldview and policy recommendations of one of the twentieth century’s most influential churchmen and statesmen.

[1] Richard H. Immerman, John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 11.