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Graduating at the top of his class at Princeton University, Dulles pursued graduate studies at the Sorbonne where he studied with the nobel prize-winning philosopher, Henri Bergson. Dulles practised law briefly before joining the American Foreign Service, serving as chief legal advisor on the reparations commission at the Versailles Conference. He had studied with Woodrow Wilson at Princeton and shared his internationalism despite Dulles’ Republican Party affiliation. Dulles returned to his law practice during most of the interwar period. During World War II, he was involved in efforts to reform the international system along the lines set out by Wilson’s 14 points, but the outbreak of the Cold War set limits on such a grand strategy.

After World War II, Dulles was pivotal in negotiations ending the American occupation of Japan, supported the North Atlantic Treaty Oganization, and was an ardent anti-communist opponent of the Soviet Union. Impressed, Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Dulles his secretary of state. In this capacity, Dulles became well known for his ideas on “massive retaliation” and “brinksmanship” as a way of deterring communist expansionism. Dulles threatened to use atomic weapons in order to force through armistice negotiations to stop the fighting in Korea and again during the Taiwan crisis of 1954. However, when the French requested that the United States intervene directly in the Indochina War to save besieged soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, Dulles advised against such a move. He participated in and closely followed the Geneva Conference and its subsequent accords. His agreement to let the French negotiate an end to the war in Indochina at the diplomatic table was linked at least to some degree to his need to win over French ratification of the European Defense Community. But well aware of Republican hostility towards communist China and Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on diplomats having “lost China” to the communists, Dulles refused to shake the hand of Premier Zhou Enlai at Geneva. In the end, Dulles acquiesced to the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel.

With the French out of the way, the statesman sought to contain communism more effectively by supporting an anti-communist, fully decolonized Vietnamese Republic of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Dulles doubled his Vietnamese strategy at the regional level by overseeing the creation of a South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), part of a larger web of security alliances designed to contain communist expansion across the globe. SEATO was also designed in part to thwart Zhou Enlai’s attempts to neutralize non-communist Asia against the United States at Geneva and to deny the communists victory in Southeast Asia beyond Tonkin. SEATO came to life in September 1954 a few weeks after the ink had dried on the Geneva Accords. See also NEUTRALIZATION OF INDOCHINA.