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The Life of a Legendary Spymaster

12:00 AM, Jun 14, 1999 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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The CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, was recently named in honor of George Bush, who served there only one year as its director and whose connection with the spy business was tangential at best. The honor should have gone to Allen Dulles, called, by his British counterpart Sir Kenneth W. D. Strong, the "greatest intelligence officer who ever lived."

But Dulles was no former president whose name would be immortalized by a bill pushed through a Republican Congress. He is dimly remembered in today's Washington as the younger brother of the more familiar John Foster Dulles (as in Dulles International Airport). Yet, Director Allen arguably exerted a greater influence for a longer period than Secretary of State John Foster.

Indeed, Allen Dulles plied the dark arts of espionage and covert operations for fifty-three years, starting in the summer of 1916 and climaxing with his plans for the Central Intelligence Agency, which he headed for more than eight years until the Bay of Pigs fiasco forced his resignation in 1961. His last three years as director of central intelligence coincided with my first three years as a Washington reporter. But I remember him as a vivid figure in the capital until his death in 1969 at age seventy-five, a stalwart at Georgetown dinner parties (wearing slippers sockless because of chronic gout), where he regaled fellow elitists with spy stories that never revealed all that much.

It is not merely that he is forgotten in a city with a diminishing sense of history. As seen through the prism of the late 1990s, Allen Welsh Dulles seems hugely improbable in comparison with those pale bureaucrats who followed him as director. He was born into the upper-class Eastern establishment, the grandson of one secretary of state (John Foster) and the nephew of another (Robert Lansing).

Conflicts of interest did not bother him as he blithely mixed practicing international law for the New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell with special State Department assignments.

Journalist and biographer James Srodes does justice to this remarkable career in Allen Dulles: Master of Spies, though it does not achieve the seamlessly smooth narrative of the 1994 biography Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles by Peter Grose.

Srodes, however, has considerably more primary source material, and makes a greater effort to place his subject in history. To the counter-culture of the 1960s, Dulles was a mindless anti-Communist interfering with popular movements throughout the world. But Srodes, more accurately, describes him as a "Wilsonian liberal" calling for an American tutelary global role.

Dulles probably could thank his "Uncle Bert" (Secretary of State Lansing) for his not beginning public service as a private soldier in General John J. Pershing's fruitless search for Pancho Villa along the Mexican border in 1916. His National Guard unit was activated for that duty just as young Allen was graduating from Princeton. But he wound up joining the U.S. foreign service in Vienna as one of his uncle's new diplomat-intelligence officers.

After America entered World War I, the young diplomat managed a transfer to the Swiss capital of Bern. In that neutral hive of espionage activity, he entered the "Great Game." It would provide him with a favorite anecdote. As Dulles told it, he "was about to close the legation early for a Friday afternoon tennis date -- with a girlfriend -- when the telephone rang." It was Bolshevik emigre V. I. Lenin wanting to negotiate with somebody. He did not take or return the call, and that very weekend Lenin was off on the legendary sealed train to St. Petersburg's Finland Station and a place in history. Never refuse to talk to anyone, any time, Dulles would tell young intelligence officers.

He was back in Bern during the Second World War running American espionage operations with fabulous success. Srodes provides a fascinating account of the abundance of information provided by anti-Nazi Germans and of Dulles's contacts with Hitler's enemies in the German military. He is painted as a remorseless spy chief: Whenever he "suspected a walk-in of being a German plant, he routinely gave him a mission into France where the Resistance could execute him summarily." The war ended with Dulles's negotiation with SS General Karl Wolff resulting in a surrender that enabled the Western allies to beat the Russians to Trieste. Without this secret surrender, Srodes concludes, "the fighting could have lasted far longer."