Last evening I attended a talk by the author of just published On DuPont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World. The book focuses on a boarding house in an upscale D.C. neighborhood before U.S. entry into World War I that became a salon of progressive thought. Author James Srodes focuses on 12 personalities of that place and time who would dominate America in coming decades, including the Roosevelts, Herbert Hoover, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, journalist Walter Lippman, Ambassador William Bullitt, plus three very accomplished siblings: John Foster, Allen and Eleanor Dulles. The first was eventual Secretary of State; the second became CIA Director, and the third was a prominent academic and roving diplomat.
(John Foster Dulles at left with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 at World Council of Churches assembly in Evanston, Illinois.)
Eleanor Dulles was the only book subject whom the author personally knew. I also fleetingly knew her. As a college student, I responded to her help wanted ad seeking a typist ostensibly to help her write a biography of her brother who was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State. She was already then over age 90 yet vigorous. But her book turned out to be a novel that included slightly risqué romantic scenes. It also required work on an old fashioned typewriter in her apartment rather than a computer. To my later regret, I quit in frustration, losing the opportunity to learn directly of her incredible life story, which included acquaintance with some of the century’s great figures. She lived another decade, until 1996, surpassing her 100th year.
Eleanor Dulles’ brother, John Foster, before becoming Secretary of State, was a prominent Presbyterian layman. He was a theological liberal who was legal counsel to liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick during his so-called heresy trial of the 1920s. Later Dulles was an officer in the Federal Council of Churches, a precursor of the National Council of Churches. He was close to Methodist Bishop Bromley Oxnam, and together, after the atomic attack on Hiroshima, they announced implicit support for this measure of ending World War II while urging against further atomic bombs. During the Eisenhower Administration, Dulles got Oxnam and the Methodist Council of Bishops into the White House to meet the President, explaining to Eisenhower that the Methodists supported his internationalism.
John Foster was somewhat sanctimonious, and Winston Churchill privately once unfavorably likened him to a “Methodist preacher.” Dulles died of cancer before the end of Ike’s presidency. But his brother, Allen, remained as CIA Director under John Kennedy, until the failed Bay of Pigs forced his resignation. The Dulleses embodied the old WASP ascendancy, when Mainline Protestants, especially Presbyterians and Episcopalians, predominated as America’s ruling elites. Unexpectedly, John Foster Dulles’ son, Avery, became a Roman Catholic Cardinal and distinguished scholar.
Srodes’ book doesn’t focus on the religious angle, though a questioner last evening did ask him to describe the faith backgrounds of his subjects. The book focuses on the progressive movement and its confidence in perfecting society, temporarily interrupted by World War I. These early progressives, unlike today’s, Srodes said, believed in equality of opportunity, not outcome. Their confidence was such that aging Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a sometime visitor to their DuPont Circle salon, named their home the “House of Truth.”
This era of Srodes’ book overlaps with a key period of my own book, Methodism and Politics of the Twentieth Century, which records how church progressives of the 1910s and 1920s supposed they could refine America through political exertion and reforming legislation, of which Prohibition was one highlight. Noble intentions but not always noble results.
On DuPont Circle would be stronger if it acknowledged how these key progressives were influenced by religion, including some of the major churches of the nation’s capital at that time. But it appears to be a good read despite this oversight.