Commentary Magazine

Acheson by James Chace

Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World
by James Chace
Simon if Schuster. 512 pp. $30.00

“History will deal severely with the Prime Minister,” Winston Churchill once warned then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin on the floor of the House of Commons. “I know, because I shall write it.”

Like Churchill, Dean Acheson wrote the history of his own era—dramatic years in the State Department under Franklin D. Roosevelt and later under Harry Truman. His magnificent 1969 memoir, Present at the Creation, made the best-seller lists and won a Pulitzer prize. But it also seems to have scared off serious biographers, who dared not attempt a tale already told so well. As a result, we have long been without a comprehensive life of one of America’s most important statesmen, arguably the major architect of the post-World War II order.

The time is therefore ripe for James Chace’s authoritative and highly readable biography. Acheson is a recent enough figure that many who knew him remain alive, and Chace, a professor at Bard College and the editor of World Policy Journal, has been able to draw on personal conversations with his subject’s contemporaries and children. The opening of archives in both Washington and Moscow has also served Chace well, giving him the advantage of near-perfect hindsight. The result is not only a superb policy biography but also a three-dimensional portrait of the man.



Dean Acheson—tall, slim, debonair, with a carefully cropped guardsman mustache—was a Secretary of State right out of central casting. His cutting wit only added to his stature. “Adlai [Stevenson] has a third-rate mind which he can’t make up,” Acheson once quipped impatiently of the twice-unsuccessful Democratic candidate for President. Acheson “was said not to suffer fools gladly,” writes Chace; “in fact, he suffered them scarcely at all.”

Acheson was part of the crème of an extraordinary generation. He learned law at the knees of Felix Frankfurter, Louis D. Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Later he walked among titans—Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, Adenauer, de Gaulle. He and his colleagues in government—men like John J. McCloy, Robert Lovett, and Averell Harriman—managed to combine rough-and-ready American toughness with gentlemanly qualities as they grappled with the new and unfamiliar international danger posed by the Soviet Union.

Apart from Acheson’s major achievements—a role as prime mover in the creation of the Marshall Plan, the Truman doctrine, and the NATO alliance, as well as a major part in the Bretton Woods accords, to name only the highlights—his great contribution to American foreign policy was the introduction of strategic realism. He was perhaps the first American Secretary of State in over a generation to think and act coherently in terms of U.S. interests and the first to conceive of those interests in truly global terms.



As Chace emphasizes throughout, Acheson was at heart a “pragmatist,” with a lawyerly mind that evaluated situations on a case-by-case basis, though usually in light of some larger strategic intuition. From his stern father—a low-church Episcopal rector, later bishop of Connecticut—he inherited both strong ethics and a distaste for abstract speculation. His conversations as a young Supreme Court law clerk with Brandeis and the venerable Holmes, whom Ache-son worshiped unabashedly, reinforced this intellectual tendency. “General principles do not decide concrete cases,” Holmes, the consummate common-law judge, had said, in a remark Acheson was fond of quoting.

Acheson’s allergy to ideology cut two ways. On the one hand, he categorically rejected the New Dealers’ Wilsonian vision of the international future: the dream of a world, as Roosevelt put it, without “spheres of influence” or power politics. This was, in Acheson’s view, “a grand fallacy.” The United Nations Charter was “impracticable,” and the world body was hardly to be regarded as a venue for serious international decision-making. “The ass that went to Mecca remained an ass, and a policy has little added to it by its place of utterance,” was Acheson’s rebuke to idealistic UN advocates.

On the other hand, unmoved as he was by abstract ideas, Acheson was initially slow to recognize how ideology might shape the calculations of others—particularly the USSR under Stalin. Among top foreign-policy officials in the Truman administration, he was apparently the last convert to the hard line toward the Soviet Union that took shape during the pivotal year of 1946. Once he became convinced of Soviet intransigence and expansionism, however, he became the hard line’s strongest advocate, though he differed from many, especially Republicans, in continuing to assess the issue more through the lens of traditional great-power politics than in terms of ideological struggle.

Despite his reluctance to enter into moralistic crusades, Acheson understood the frequent need to justify American policy in broad, sometimes sweeping, anti-Communist terms. A strength that set him apart from many of his peers in the establishment, then and since, was an instinctive feel for the mind of the ordinary American. This he had acquired in part through a youthful rebellion against the “idle rich” that once led him to take a position on a railway work crew. His comfort with people far from the drawing-room milieu may even have helped cement his special relationship with Harry Truman—an ordinary American if ever there was one—toward whom Acheson bore unstinting loyalty and affection. As Chace stresses repeatedly, this unusually strong relationship between a President and Secretary of State was one key to Acheson’s success.

Another key was Acheson’s ability to keep the big picture in view, subordinating secondary matters and emotional attachments to the main theme: filling the power vacuum in postwar Europe. In this connection, despite strong cultural and familial ties to the British Isles, he set no store by the much-touted “special relationship” between London and Washington. Indeed, he viewed the British mixture of weakness and wounded post-imperial vanity with deep distrust, seeing it as an impediment to what needed to be done in Europe as a whole.

The same unsentimental approach led him, while serving as Under Secretary to then-Secretary of State George Marshall, to oppose the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. (Anti-Semitism was never an issue. Acheson’s closest friend and mentor in Washington was Frankfurter, though during this period they mutually agreed to swear off the subject of Zionism in their daily conversations.) Acheson and Marshall believed Israeli statehood would lead to war and thus undermine the U.S. position in the Middle East. Truman, recognizing a larger imperative, overruled them. On similar grounds, in later years, Acheson campaigned hard in favor of continued Portuguese colonial rule in southern Africa, defying the liberal anti-imperialism of his fellow Democrats.



These choices reveal a certain blind spot in the Achesonian model. It would be inaccurate, and wholly unfair, to say that his approach lacked vision. But there was a kind of absence of faith—a lack of sensitivity to the large moral undercurrents that played such a conspicuous role in the cold war and were to come to a kind of apotheosis during the conflict’s endgame in the Reagan years. Though Reagan was himself a consummate realist about power, he grasped better than Acheson that ideas of right and wrong carry real force in human affairs, and can be transformative in a way that realism rarely is.

The most serious contemporary criticism of the Truman-Acheson policy toward the USSR was that it tended toward stalemate. Even if one acknowledges the elements of hypocrisy and demagoguery in John Foster Dulles’s bold notions of “liberation” and “rollback,” the Republican Dulles, later to become Secretary of State himself in the Eisenhower administration, was right to sense in his Democratic rival’s approach a certain lack of moral dynamism. At the time, the loss of strategic initiative was vividly reflected in the deadlock of the Korean war, still grinding on when Truman and Acheson left office.

Acheson’s bitterest political enemy in his day was not Dulles, however, but Senator Joseph McCarthy, who, with his charges about Communists running loose in the State Department, helped to make Acheson’s final years as Secretary something of a living hell. Acheson suffered particularly dearly for his public refusal to repudiate the Soviet spy Alger Hiss upon the latter’s conviction for perjury in 1950. Doubting the man’s innocence, Acheson nonetheless refused to set aside long-standing personal loyalties to Hiss and his family. Whatever threat espionage posed, moreover, unleashing McCarthy on the State Department, Acheson was convinced, would eviscerate America’s capacity to make foreign policy and destroy the morale of its diplomatic corps. In this he was undoubtedly correct.



Chace’s narrative, though very admiring, is not entirely uncritical. Still, his policy judgments generally follow those of the liberal establishment and, mostly, Acheson’s own, even when questionable. It is hard, for example, to accept Chace’s lenient verdict on the quixotic 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal plan to turn over control of nuclear weapons and technology to an international authority (though in the end the proposal came to nothing). It is harder still to second Acheson’s, and Chace’s, view that by consigning Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan to the tender mercies of the Communist Chinese, we could have opened a productive relationship with Mao.

By contrast, Chace’s views of the Soviet problem—mirroring Acheson’s—are generally without illusion. And, true to the biographer’s art, he makes his judgments with a light hand, giving the reader all the evidence needed to make a determination of his own. As we are once again “present at the creation” of a new world order, the valuable history lesson offered by this book could not be more timely. And, in an era of the rankest national scandals, reflection on Acheson’s career offers an additional benefit as well: a welcome breath of honorable air.


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