In Memoriam

John W. F. Dulles (1913-2008)

Jonathan C. Brown, December 2008

Professor of Latin American studies; son of former Secretary of State

At 95 years of age, John Watson Foster Dulles was the oldest teaching professor on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. He died on June 27, 2008, just three days after his wife of 67 years, Eleanor (C.C.) Ritter Dulles, passed away. He was the eldest son of the former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Janet Pomeroy Avery, and the nephew of the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen Dulles. Dulles is survived by one brother, two sons, and two daughters.

To become a professional historian specializing in recent political history, Jack Dulles trained himself. He developed a research methodology of carrying out extensive interviews with former political leaders and opinion makers, which he backed up with diligent research in newspaper collections. He styled himself a chronicler, a narrator, whose approach to history derived from his unusual career path.

After graduating with a BA from Princeton University, Dulles undertook postgraduate training in business at Harvard University. He worked in banking for a time, did not take a liking to it, and decided to accept an offer of employment in Arizona with the Hannah Mining Company. He went on to obtain an MS in metallurgical engineering at the University of Arizona, and eventually rose to the level of vice president, working in Hannah’s subsidiaries in Mexico and later in Brazil.

While living in Monterrey in the 1950s, Dulles had company duties that frequently took him to Mexico City to confer with officials of the Mexican government. These trips presented him with the opportunity to meet and to talk with older politicians who had started the revolution and consolidated political power in the 1920s. He met former presidents Adolfo de la Huerta, Plutarco Elías Calles, and Lázaro Cárdenas, and began to keep notes from these conversations. To gain additional information, he always asked his interviewees to give him an introduction to two or three other witnesses to recent history. This provided the basis of his first book on history, Yesterday in Mexico: A Chronicle of the Revolution, 1919–34, published in 1961 when Dulles was still working for Hannah Mining but now in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The University of Texas (UT) appointed him as professor of Latin American studies the year following the book’s publication. He was 49 years old.

Between 1966 and 1991, Dulles held two faculty jobs, teaching in the fall semester at UT and the spring semester at the University of Arizona. Thereafter, he spent the rest of his long career at Texas without giving thought to retirement. “Why would I retire? What would I do?” he asked. “Watch TV? No, this stuff is too fun and exciting.” Before his death, Dulles was revising lectures for a fall class on “Recent Brazil, 1919 to the Present.” He rushed to and from classes on a motorized scooter when a broken leg did not heal properly.

Dulles moved his faculty office off campus two decades ago when the university administration banned smoking in UT buildings. He established his office in an apartment on the 27th floor of a nearby high-rise building. The place filled with the smoke of pipe tobacco while Dulles wrote his books long hand on a yellow legal pad or as he talked to visitors, but everyone marveled at the views of the downtown Austin skyline. He lined the walls with book shelves and aging photographs. “Now you’ll have to speak loudly because I’m completely deaf in my right ear,” he would say with a grin. “My bad hearing has been a great coverup for my inability to answer some students’ questions in class. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll pretend I couldn’t hear the question.”

During his long tenure, he produced 12 volumes of history, and each one has been translated and published in Mexico or Brazil. While serving as vice president of the Compania Mineracão Novalimense of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Dulles became fascinated with Brazilian politics, publishing Vargas of Brazil: A Political Biography some five years after he had joined the faculty in Austin. The University of Texas Press published all of his books, save the two volumes he devoted to the political biography of General and President Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1978 and 1980). He devoted other books to the politics leading up to the military revolution of 1964 (Unrest in Brazil, 1970), communists in Brazil (Anarchists and Communists, 1973, and Brazilian Communism, 1983), the São Paulo Law School and the Anti-Vargas Resistance (1986), Carlos Lacerda in two volumes (1991), and conservative lawyer Heráclito Sobral Pinto’s defense of human rights (2002 and 2007). His chronicle of Sobral Pinto’s opposition to the military government was Dulles’s last book. “When I was in the late stages of gathering material for this biography, physical problems afflicted me and made it clear that this is my farewell to writing for publication,” he states in the introduction of his final book.

Over the years, Dulles’s reverence for the history of Brazil won him the devotion of his students. His lectures became known for the telling anecdote, for the depiction of human behavior in high politics, and for the wry humor. In later years, Dulles gave up his cherished tennis matches and resigned himself cheerfully first to a walker then the scooter. He even cut back on smoking the pipe. But the keen memory and strong voice did not fail him, and Dulles never disappointed his students, who respected his mastery of political history. He invariably showed up to class in tennis shoes and later in slippers because of his gout, and dressed in khaki slacks and seersucker blazer, eccentricities that endeared him to students. His office assistants say that he never missed a class.

Reviewers have praised Dulles for the painstaking and meticulous research in each of his published works. But he remained very much the chronicler he had become in his first book on Mexican political history. As he once remarked to me, “I’ll leave it up to the readers what all of this means. I just want to tell the important story.” Therefore, his scholarship has become an indispensable asset to researchers and teachers. In my classes, I still utilize the revealing anecdotes I read in his books or heard as a student in his lectures. There are detailed vignettes about General Álvaro Obregón losing his arm in the Battle of Celaya or getting shot to death by a religious fanatic after winning the presidential election of 1928. I still tell students about how the Brazilian Communist Luiz Carlos Prestes purposely provoked his guards to beat him up just before a court appearance. The particulars of the military intervention in 1955 and President Vargas’s suicide always fascinate students. Dulles’s extensive interviews, the transcripts of which are available in the John W. F. Dulles Papers at the Benson Latin American Collection at UT-Austin, reveal his trilingual talents as well as his commitment to accuracy. In addition, these documents capture the depth of his epistolary, especially with Brazilian correspondents.

Treatment of ideology remains the measure of Dulles’s contribution to the craft of history. He was a keen student of the communist movement in Brazil and recognized the reasons for its few successes and its many failures. Yet he devoted more attention to the creative conservatives in Brazilian society, the true believers of the Catholic Church, and the principled critics of the misuse of executive power. He found no contradiction between his admiration for the first leader of the post-1964 military regime, General Castello Branco (whom he called the “reformer”), and Sobral Pinto, the intrepid conservative censor of the generals who succeeded Castello Branco as president. In his writing, Dulles favored individual freedom over government dictate, whether the latter originated with the populist Vargas or from the reactionary General Emilio Garrastazu Medici. The idiosyncratic always intrigued Dulles—the automobile attacks of Mexican laboristas against the horseback-mounted sinarquistas in 1934 or Brazilian nationalists shouting “O petroleo e nosso” over a scarcely existent national oil industry in 1954. Jack Dulles demonstrated that paradox and irony transcend national boundaries as well as historical periods.

—Jonathan C. Brown
University of Texas at Austin