James Srodes, a former Washington bureau chief for Forbes and Financial World and contributor to numerous publications, including the American Spectator and The Washington Times, has written a number of well-received biographies, among them “Allen Dulles: Master of Spies” and “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.” In these books, Mr. Srodes brings to his subjects the journalist’s eye for significant detail and the ability to tell a complicated story in clear and active prose, with none of the passive and carefully hedged constructions — or the biases —that have increasingly come to characterize the writings of academics.
In “On Dupont Circle,” which traces the careers of a small group that would come to dominate American policy formation, he observes that “Anyone who reads much history has to be struck by how there are so few really important people involved in any great event What is so remarkable about our cast of a dozen young characters who assembled in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington D.C. is how important they would remain to the history of what we call the American Century.”
Among these characters, all of them born in the 19th century and coming of age in the 20th: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; Walter Lippmann, who would become “America’s most influential intellectual commentator on public affairs;” Felix Frankfurter, who became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Sumner Welles, whose sexual misadventures would obscure his diplomatic accomplishments; and William Bullitt, ambassador to France who would fight with the Free French under Charles DeGaulle, winning the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. He loathed Welles, turned against Franklin Roosevelt and supported both Thomas Dewey and Richard Nixon.
There was John Foster Dulles, who would serve President Eisenhower as secretary of state; Allen Dulles, CIA director until President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco; Eleanor Dulles, involved in various post-World War II economic revitalization and reconstruction projects; also, Hamilton Fish, Lord Eustace Percy and, peripherally, Herbert Hoover.
This extraordinary cast of characters first comes together in several Dupont Circle residences, one of them called “The House of Truth,” so named by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who enjoyed visiting and presiding over the arguments and discussions among the then-young Turks, who styled themselves “progressives” and whose mission, as Mr. Srodes puts it, was “to speak their new truths to an older age.”
And that is precisely what they did, from the House of Truth to the White House, from World War I through the Depression and to the victory in World War II. In some respects, this group of young strivers out to change the world might remind us a bit of other groups rooted in the same period, also out to speak new truths. (The Bloomsbury Group, for instance, noted for the same sort of sexual hijinks indulged in by some of Mr. Srodes‘ young progressives, may have given us Keynesian economics, while the New Deal could have been conceived in the House of Truth.)
But the “progressivism” of which Mr. Srodes writes is uniquely American, neither Democrat nor Republican, growing out of many complex but interrelated factors — the rush to industrialization, the collapse of the old order, World War I, the failure of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, the increasing inevitability of war. New leadership was required, and Mr. Srodes‘ progressives would finally “coalesce around Franklin Roosevelt.”
They may not have succeeded in bringing peace to the world, and many of their hopes — especially as embodied in the creation of an effective United Nations organization that was one of FDR’s fondest dreams — came crashing down to earth. Human nature, no matter how you try to control external circumstances, is still human nature.
But as Mr. Srodes puts it, “What is important to us today is how firmly they stayed constant to an overarching vision of a strong America that would guarantee social justice at home, install democracy in other nations and, above all, try to foster a world where peace — not war — was the norm.”
“The world as it is today is our inheritance from these ambitious, flawed pioneers for peace. They are remarkable people, and it is a remarkable story.”
Indeed it is, especially as told by Mr. Srodes, and written in strong, clear prose informed by a sense of history, a deep understanding of American politics, and a tolerance for human idiosyncracies.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).