About the Book by Richard Aldous Titled “The Dillon Era: Douglas Dillon in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Philip Terzian headlined “”The Dillon Era’ Review: Serving Eisenhower, Kennedy, and America”:

At the outset of “The Dillon Era,” an informative, appreciative study of C. Douglas Dillon, secretary of the Treasury in the Kennedy administration, Richard Aldous laments that his subject has become “if not a forgotten figure, then a largely overlooked and underappreciated one.” This relative misfortune, he explains, has much to do with Dillon’s “low-key style,” which didn’t “draw attention to itself as did that of such larger-than-life cabinet figures as John Foster Dulles and Robert McNamara.” One wonders if McNamara, whose tenure at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War transformed him from corporate whiz kid into folk villain, ever yearned to trade places with the overlooked, underappreciated Dillon.

Mr. Aldous, a history professor at Bard College and the author of a well-regarded biography of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., makes a persuasive case for Dillon’s beneficial role in the tumultuous history of postwar America. Along the way, he invokes testimonials from JFK (who, according to his brother Robert, thought Dillon “a brilliant man”) and approbation from the economist Paul Samuelson and the campaign chronicler Theodore H. White, as well as from the New York Times editorial page, which coined the phrase that furnishes the book’s title.

Part of Dillon’s appeal, then as now, was his patrician habits, appearance and manner. Born in Switzerland, educated at Groton and Harvard, almost invariably encased in a suit tailored on London’s Savile Row, he was strikingly different from the go-getters who largely surrounded him in government. His voice and personality were pitched low, his opinions expressed with polish. Even in photographs his bland smile and domed forehead blend seamlessly into the black-and-white background. On the rare occasions when Dillon raised his voice—as when he went head-to-head on international monetary policy in 1963 with Under Secretary of State George Ball and the Cold War uber-mandarin Dean Acheson—people, including the president, sat up and listened.

One explanation for Dillon’s present obscurity may be the very qualities that set him apart. The patricians of the Dillon era who remain vivid in public memory—Nelson Rockefeller, the two Roosevelts, even Dillon’s patron and family friend John Foster Dulles—were politicians at heart and in practice, prodded more by personal ambition than a thirst for public service. Dillon, Read & Co., the New York investment bank that formed the basis for Dillon’s vast fortune, spawned all sorts of once-prominent officials—of varying skills and personality types—including James Forrestal and Paul Nitze, as well as Dillon’s own father, Clarence.

Consider Dillon’s startling entry into official life. After years of service at Dillon, Read and as a decorated naval officer in the Pacific, he helped to raise funds for the 1948 Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, working closely with Dulles on the campaign. Four years later he helped secure the GOP nomination for Dwight Eisenhower. Dillon had done well at the firm, but his father was aware that his son was restless (“I wanted to go off and do something else”). After the elder Dillon met privately with President-elect Eisenhower, it was announced that the next U.S. ambassador to France would not be Clarence Dillon, as expected, but his 43-year-old son.

This was a leap of faith on Eisenhower’s part, given the younger Dillon’s near-complete lack of relevant experience in public life, much less diplomacy. The key to the transaction was undoubtedly Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state-designate, who had come to like and admire Dillon and was confident of his success.

The confidence was not misplaced. Dulles’s envoy performed impressively—especially during the trans-Atlantic upheaval prompted by the 1956 Suez Crisis—and when Dillon’s four-year tenure in Paris was up, Dulles summoned him to Washington as under secretary of state for economic affairs and, in the following year, promoted Dillon to be one of his two principal deputies.

One major virtue and one minor defect of “The Dillon Era” should be mentioned. The virtue is that Mr. Aldous consistently casts John Foster Dulles in a favorable, and largely revisionist, light. In place of the standard version of Dulles as bumptious scourge of our NATO allies, he is revealed here as a wise, reasonable, even occasionally subtle, practitioner of the diplomatic arts, working in close harmony and subordinate partnership with Ike.

The defect is that the author’s appreciation of Dulles and high regard for Dillon lead him at times to diminish other players who deserve more favorable notice. One case in point is Christian Herter, the under secretary of state who succeeded Dulles as secretary in 1959 and is here dismissed as “usually remembered as an undistinguished manager of foreign policy during the last years of the Eisenhower administration.” Herter’s subsequent success—advancing “peaceful co-existence” with post-Stalin Russia, laying the groundwork for Kennedy initiatives such as the 1963 Test Ban Treaty—derived in part from the personal and professional qualities he shared with Dillon.

Dillon, Dulles and Eisenhower shared a limitless faith in Cold War foreign policy by diverse means, especially economic diplomacy in the form of trade negotiations and foreign aid in the face of congressional suspicion. No less important to the global balance of power were Dillon’s well-placed concerns over the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit and the drain on gold reserves in the late 1950s.

In 1961, it was these matters and their close identification with Dillon that commended him to a Democratic president in search of a diplomatic Republican at Treasury—someone who could sell Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress to Congress, counter the arguments of his free-spending White House counselors, and, most salutary of all, advocate tirelessly for the comprehensive tax cuts of 1964 that sent the economy to new heights of growth and prosperity, and of course helped finance Robert McNamara’s war.

Philip Terzian is the author of “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.”

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