Born in Washington, D.C., Dulles joined the New York City law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell after graduating from George Washington University Law School. His grandfather, John W. Foster, and his uncle, Robert Lansing, both served as Secretary of State, while his brother, Allen Dulles, served as the Director of Central Intelligence from 1953 to 1961. John Foster Dulles served on the War Industries Board during World War I and he was a U.S. legal counsel at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He became a member of the League of Free Nations Association, which supported American membership in the League of Nations. Dulles also helped design the Dawes Plan, which sought to stabilize Europe by reducing German war reparations.
Dulles served as the chief foreign policy adviser to Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948. He also helped draft the preamble to the United Nations Charter and served as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1949, Dewey appointed Dulles to fill the Senate vacancy caused by the resignation of Robert F. Wagner. He served for four months but left office after being defeated in a special election by Herbert H. Lehman. After Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election, he chose Dulles as Secretary of State.
As Secretary of State, Dulles concentrated on building and strengthening Cold War alliances, most prominently NATO. He was the architect of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, an anti-Communist defensive alliance between the United States and several nations in and near Southeast Asia. He also helped instigate the 1953 Iranian coup d'état and the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état. He favored a strategy of massive retaliation in response to Soviet aggression. He advocated support of the French in their war against the Viet Minh in Indochina but rejected the Geneva Accords that France and the communists agreed to, and instead supported South Vietnam after the Geneva Conference in 1954. Suffering from colon cancer, Dulles resigned from office in 1959 and died later that year.
Born in Washington, D.C., he was one of five children and the eldest son born to Presbyterian minister Allen Macy Dulles and his wife, Edith (née Foster). His paternal grandfather, John Welsh Dulles, had been a Presbyterian missionary in India. His maternal grandfather, John W. Foster doted on Dulles and his brother Allen, who would later become the director of the CIA. The brothers attended public schools in Watertown, New York.
Dulles attended Princeton University and graduated as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1908. At Princeton, Dulles competed on the American Whig-Cliosophic Society debate team. He then attended the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.
Both his grandfather Foster and his uncle Robert Lansing, the husband of Eleanor Foster, had held the position of Secretary of State. His younger brother Allen Welsh Dulles served as Director of Central Intelligence under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his younger sister Eleanor Lansing Dulles was noted for her work in the successful reconstruction of the economy of post-war Europe during her 20 years with the State Department.
On June 26, 1912, Dulles married Janet Pomeroy Avery (1891–1969), with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Their older son John W. F. Dulles (1913–2008) was a professor of history and specialist in Brazil at the University of Texas at Austin. Their daughter Lillias Dulles Hinshaw (1914–1987) became a Presbyterian minister. Their son Avery Dulles (1918–2008) converted to Roman Catholicism, entered the Jesuit order, and became the first American theologian to be appointed a Cardinal.
Upon graduating from law school and passing the bar examination, Dulles joined the New York City law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, where he specialized in international law. After the start of World War I, Dulles tried to join the United States Army, but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Instead, Dulles received an Army commission as Major on the War Industries Board. Dulles later returned to Sullivan & Cromwell and became a partner with an international practice.
In 1915, Dulles's uncle, Robert Lansing, then the U.S. Secretary of State, recruited him to travel to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, ostensibly on Sullivan & Cromwell company business, but in reality to sound out Latin American heads of state on aiding the US war effort against Germany. Dulles advised Washington to support Costa Rica's dictator Federico Tinoco on the grounds that he was anti-German, and also encouraged Nicaraguan dictator Emianiano Camorro to issue a proclamation suspending diplomatic relations with Germany. In Panama, Dulles offered waiver of the US tax on the annual Canal fee, so long as Panama declared war on Germany.
In 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appointed Dulles as legal counsel to the United States delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference where he served under his uncle, Secretary of State Robert Lansing. Dulles made an early impression as a junior diplomat. While some recollections indicate he clearly and forcefully argued against imposing crushing reparations on Germany, other recollections indicate he insured Germany's reparation payments would extend for decades as perceived leverage militating against future German borne hostilities. Afterwards, he served as a member of the War Reparations Committee at Wilson's request. He was also an early member, along with future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, of the League of Free Nations Association, founded in 1918 and after 1923 known as the Foreign Policy Association, which supported American membership in the League of Nations.
As a partner in Sullivan & Cromwell, Dulles expanded upon his late grandfather Foster's expertise, specializing in international finance. He played a major role in designing the Dawes Plan, which reduced German reparations payments and temporarily resolved the reparations issue by having American firms lend money to German states and private companies. Under that compromise, the money was invested and the profits sent as reparations to Britain and France, which used the funds to repay their own war loans from the U.S. In the 1920s Dulles was involved in setting up a billion dollars' worth of these loans.
Dulles, a deeply religious man, attended numerous international conferences of churchmen during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1924, he was the defense counsel in the church trial of Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had been charged with heresy by opponents in his denomination (the event which sparked the continuing Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy in the international Christian Churches over the literal interpretation of Scripture versus the newly developed "Historical-Critical" method including recent scientific and archeological discoveries). The case settled when Fosdick, a liberal Baptist, resigned his pulpit in the Presbyterian Church congregation, which he had never joined.
After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Dulles's previous practice brokering and documenting international loans ended. After 1931 Germany stopped making some of its scheduled payments. In 1934 Germany unilaterally stopped payments on private debts of the sort that Dulles was handling In 1935, with the Nazis in power, Sullivan & Cromwell's junior partners forced Dulles to cut all business ties with Germany. Dulles was then prominent in the religious peace movement and an isolationist, but the junior partners were led by his brother Allen, so he reluctantly acceded to their wishes.
Dulles was a prominent Republican and a close associate of Thomas E. Dewey, who became the Republican presidential nominee in the elections of 1944 and 1948. During the '44 and '48 campaigns Dulles served as Dewey's chief foreign policy adviser. In 1944, Dulles took an active role in establishing the Republican plank calling for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine.
In 1945, Dulles participated in the San Francisco Conference as an adviser to Arthur H. Vandenberg and helped draft the preamble to the United Nations Charter. He attended the United Nations General Assembly as a United States delegate in 1946, 1947 and 1950.
Dulles strongly opposed the US atomic attacks on Japan. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings he drafted a public statement that called for international control of nuclear energy under United Nations auspices. Dulles wrote:
If we, as a professedly Christian nation, feel morally free to use atomic energy in that way, men elsewhere will accept that verdict. Atomic weapons will be looked upon as a normal part of the arsenal of war and the stage will be set for the sudden and final destruction of mankind.
Dulles never lost his anxiety about the destructive power of nuclear weapons, but his views on international control and on employing the threat of atomic attack changed in the face of the Berlin blockade, the Soviet detonation of an A-bomb, and the advent of the Korean war. These convinced him that the communist bloc was pursuing expansionist policies.
Governor Dewey appointed Dulles to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Democrat Robert F. Wagner. Dulles served from July 7 to November 8, 1949. He lost the special election to fill the Senate vacancy to Democrat Herbert H. Lehman.
In the late 1940s, as a general conceptual framework for contending with world communism, Dulles developed the policy known as rollback to serve as the Republican party's alternative to the Democrats' containment model. It proposed taking the offensive to push Communism back rather than defensively containing it within its areas of control and influence.
In 1950, Dulles published War or Peace, a critical analysis of the American policy of containment, which at the time the foreign policy elite in Washington favored, particularly in the Democratic administration of President Harry S. Truman, whose foreign policy Dulles criticized. Dulles instead advocated a policy of "liberation".
When Dwight Eisenhower became U.S. President in January, 1953, Dulles was appointed and confirmed as his Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, Dulles still carried out the “containment” policy of neutralizing the Taiwan Strait during the Korean War, which had been established by President Truman in the Treaty of Peace with Japan of 1951. Dulles also supervised the completion of the Japanese Peace Treaty, in which full independence was restored to Japan under United States terms.
As Secretary of State, Dulles concentrated on building up NATO and forming other alliances (a phenomenon described as his "Pactomania") as part of his strategy of controlling Soviet expansion by threatening massive retaliation in event of a war. In the 1950s, he worked alongside to reduce the French influence in Vietnam as well as asking the United States to attempt to cooperate with the French in the aid of strengthening Diem's Army. Over time Dulles concluded that it was time to "ease France out of Vietnam". In 1950 he also helped initiate the ANZUS Treaty for mutual protection with Australia and New Zealand.
Dulles strongly opposed communism, believing it was "Godless terrorism". One of his first major policy shifts towards a more aggressive position against communism occurred in March 1953, when Dulles supported Eisenhower's decision to direct the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), then headed by his brother Allen Dulles, to draft plans to overthrow the Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. This led directly to the coup d'état via Operation Ajax in support of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran.
In 1954, Dulles became the architect of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The treaty, signed by representatives of Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States, provided for collective action against aggression.
In 1954 Dulles lobbied Eisenhower on behalf of the American United Fruit Company to instigate a military coup by the Guatemalan army through the CIA under the pretext that Jacobo Árbenz's government and the Guatemalan Revolution were veering toward communism. Dulles had previously represented the United Fruit Company as a lawyer, and remained on its payroll, while his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, was on the company's board of directors.
Dulles was named Time's Man of the Year for 1954.
Dulles was one of the pioneers of massive retaliation and brinkmanship. In an article written for Life magazine, Dulles defined his policy of brinkmanship: "The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art." Dulles' hard line alienated many leaders of nonaligned countries when on June 9, 1955, he argued in a speech that "neutrality has increasingly become obsolete and, except under very exceptional circumstances, it is an immoral and shortsighted conception." Throughout the 1950s Dulles was in frequent conflict with those non-aligned statesmen he deemed excessively sympathetic to Communism, including India's V.K. Krishna Menon.
In November 1956, Dulles strongly opposed the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal zone in response to the Suez Crisis. During the most crucial days he was hospitalized after surgery and did not participate in Washington's decision-making. However, by 1958 Dulles had become an outspoken opponent of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and prevented him from receiving arms from the United States. This policy allowed the Soviet Union to gain influence in Egypt.
Dulles served as the Chairman and Co-founder of the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (later the National Council of Churches), the Chairman of the Board for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a Trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1935 to 1952. Dulles was also a founding member of Foreign Policy Association and Council of Foreign Relations.
Dulles developed colon cancer, for which he was first operated on in November 1956 when it had caused a bowel perforation. He experienced abdominal pain at the end of 1958 and was hospitalized with a diagnosis of diverticulitis. In January 1959, Dulles returned to work, but with more pain and declining health underwent abdominal surgery in February at Walter Reed Hospital when the cancer's recurrence became evident. After recuperating in Florida, Dulles returned to Washington for work and radiation therapy. With further declining health and evidence of bone metastasis, he resigned from office on April 15, 1959.
Dulles died at Walter Reed on May 24, 1959, at the age of 71. Funeral services were held in Washington National Cathedral on May 27, 1959, and Dulles was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Dulles was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom and the Sylvanus Thayer Award in 1959. A central West Berlin road was named John-Foster-Dulles-Allee in 1959 with a ceremony attended by Christian Herter, Dulles' successor as Secretary of State.
The Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia and John Foster Dulles High, Middle, and Elementary Schools in Sugar Land, Texas (including the street (Dulles Avenue) where the school campuses are located), were named in his honor, as is John Foster Dulles Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio. New York named the Dulles State Office Building in Watertown, New York in his honor. In 1960 the U.S. Post Office Department issued a commemorative stamp honoring Dulles.
Carol Burnett rose to prominence in the 1950s singing a novelty song, "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles". When asked about the song on Meet the Press, Dulles responded with good humor: “I never discuss matters of the heart in public.”
This quote is sometimes attributed to Dulles: "The United States of America does not have friends; it has interests." The words were spoken by Charles De Gaulle, but when Dulles traveled to Mexico in 1958, anti-American protesters held up signs reading "The U.S. has no friends, only interests."