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5 Things You Didn’t Know About John Foster Dulles

Today would have been John Foster Dulles’ 123rd birthday. To honor this key figure of the early Cold War, let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the diplomat who served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and lent his name to a major airport in Washington.

1. He Got Into Diplomacy Early

When Dulles was a 19-year-old junior at Princeton, he had to get special permission to delay his final exams one term. Dulles didn’t have a normal schoolboy excuse, though; he had to work at his unusual job. Despite his young age, he had somehow wrangled a post as secretary to the Chinese delegation at the Second Hague Peace Conference. (When John F. Kennedy dedicated Dulles International Airport in 1962, he praised “John Foster Dulles, who at the age of 19 was, rather strangely, the Secretary to the Chinese Delegation to The Hague.”)

Dulles finished up at Princeton in 1908 and went on to study law at George Washington University. It took him 25 years to earn his diploma, though. Dulles only spent two years at the school before passing the New York bar and going to work. The school didn’t want to give him a degree since he hadn’t spent a full stint in classes, and it took 25 years before the university relented and gave Dulles a law degree.

2. He Liked to Doodle

Like a lot of people, Dulles liked to absent-mindedly doodle as he was sitting in meetings or thinking. Unlike a lot of people, though, Dulles was usually thinking about all sorts of heavy Cold War diplomatic issues while he was doodling. According to David Greenberg’s book Presidential Doodles, Dulles’ State Department aides were under strict orders to collect all of Dulles’ doodles and destroy them. Otherwise, foreign powers might be able to use the Secretary of State’s doodles for psychological analysis.

Dulles wasn’t just a nervous doodler, though. He also knew how to use a doodle to gain the upper hand in a meeting. He reveled in doodling during meetings with Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, and he particularly enjoyed needling Molotov by taking breaks from negotiations so he could sharpen his doodling pencil.

2. He Left an Odd Will

When Dulles’ survivors opened his will in Manhattan in 1959, they found that he had left most of his estate to his wife, Janet. Additionally, Dulles left each of his sisters $10,000, each of his old law partners $25,000, and $10,000 and forgiveness of her mortgage to his daughter Lillias. His sons got rather different treatments, though. Older son John Watson Foster Dulles received $100,000 from his father. Younger son Avery only got a $5,000 cut.

According to Time, Dulles wrote in his will that Avery was getting so much less “not because of any lack of affection for him, but because of special circumstances.” What circumstances? Avery was a member of the Jesuit order and had taken a vow of poverty. He couldn’t even formally accept the $5,000; he had the option of either returning it to the estate or signing it over to the Society of Jesus.

The really interesting thing about Avery Dulles’ career choice was that he hadn’t even been raised Catholic; the Dulles family was Presbyterian. He converted to Catholicism during his law school days at Harvard, and he eventually became one of the most noted theologians in the Catholic Church. In fact, in 2001 he became the first American ever appointed to the College of Cardinals.

4. He Came from a Distinguished Family

For most people, becoming Secretary of State would be a huge achievement. For Dulles, he was just taking up the family business. His grandfather, John Watson Foster, had served as Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison in 1892 and 1893. His uncle Robert Lansing served as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State from 1915 until 1920.

His siblings were similarly high achievers. His brother Allen served as Director of the CIA from 1953 until 1961 and was also a member of the Warren Commission. Their sister Eleanor made a name for herself as a State Department economist during the 1950s.

5. He Coined Some Cold War Terms

Any time you read about “brinkmanship” or “massive retaliation” in a history book, think of Dulles. He gets the credit for coining both terms. Dulles sometimes gets credit for coining the term “open skies,” which in the Cold War context meant freedom for both sides to inspect the other from the air, but his New York Times obituary noted that although Dulles was a champion of the policy and pushed the Soviets to sign open skies treaties, he didn’t create the term.

If there’s someone you’d like to see profiled in a future edition of ’5 Things You Didn’t Know About…,’ leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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