Morning and Noon.
by Dean Acheson.
Houghton, Mifflin. 288 pp. $6.00.
When Dr. New Deal gave way to Dr. Win the War in 1940, there took place beneath the surface of events a corresponding change in the governing coalition of the nation. The New Deal had joined leaders of immigrant, labor, and intellectual groups from the urban East with rural progressives from the South and West. The Western progressives, isolationists to the core, regarded foreign commitments as (largely fraudulent) devices for suffocating domestic reform. As the prospect of American entry into World War II loomed larger and larger, they tended to enter the opposition. But at the critical moment, the vacuum they left was filled by men of business and finance from Wall Street and State Street, Eastern Republicans in the main, conservative in domestic matters but passionate internationalists. There thus was formed the Establishment coalition of Big Government, Big Labor, and Big Business that has dominated American foreign policy for the past quarter-century.
A chief occasion for the great transition of 1940 was the deal that sent 50 American destroyers of World War I vintage to Britain. Because of isolationist feeling, the administration was obliged to carry out the destroyer deal behind the back of the Congress. A leading New Deal lawyer, Ben Cohen, found authority for arranging the transaction by Executive fiat. But because of the hangover from Roosevelt's losing fight to pack the Supreme Court, the administration was concerned to have that opinion legitimized by the most impeccable outside legal authority. In those circumstances, Mr. Cohen turned to a friend engaged in the private practice of law in Washington, Dean G. Acheson. Together they developed and refined the formula for sending the ships abroad by Presidential order. Mr. Acheson then won public support for the opinion from two leading Wall Street lawyers, C. C. Burlingham and Thomas W. Thatcher. With that one stroke, Mr. Acheson emerged as a mover and shaker in the Establishment coalition. He set foot on the path that was to lead him, by a deep inner logic, to the position of Secretary of State during the years when the Establishment coalition and American power in the world found both their supreme test and the apex of their influence.
Mr. Acheson's delightful memoir—the first volume of his autobiography—is a paradigm of his historic role. Nothing, it seems at first glance, could be further removed from the central development of American politics and power. The story ends just after the completion of the destroyer deal, with Mr. Acheson on the verge of entering the State Department as an Assistant Secretary. It omits many of what an outsider would presume to be the central facts of his early life. That Acheson père was an Episcopal bishop is nowhere stated. Groton, as if it were a dirty name, is not mentioned. There is not a word about undergraduate days at Yale. Experiences as a student at the Harvard Law School are passed over. So is courtship and marriage. Instead, the focus seems to rest on false starts, on things that never panned out. He tells of his boyhood in a small New England town; of working as a common laborer on the railroad that became the Canadian Pacific; of two years of dwelling, as law clerk to Justice Brandeis, among serious and liberal men in the time of postwar disillusion that yielded Harding and Coolidge; of private law practice in Washington; of a successful fight, during the hearing that confirmed Felix Frankfurter as a Supreme Court Justice, against the virus that later acquired currency as McCarthyism; of his resignation as Under Secretary of the Treasury after two years in office.
At first, one has the impression that Mr. Acheson is treating the past as if his “morning and noon” had never been followed by anything, let alone a glorious afternoon. But a closer look shows the case going the other way altogether. There is, for example, the dedication, to Frankfurter with a text from Amos: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” A felicitous motto, it suggests the coming together of two wholly different men, a meeting of alien worlds. And once this clue is seized, it becomes clear that Mr. Acheson is describing precisely the traits and circumstances that enabled him to be a hinge in history, that placed him between two worlds, at the relay point where destiny changed horses.
When it comes to traits, ripeness, if not all, is a great deal. To know Mr. Acheson even a little bit—to be in the presence of that imperious look, that brisk stride, that relish for words, particularly his own—is to see personified the taste for life and its endless variety. “If Aristotle,” he remarked casually the other day, “had been assigned to train Felix Frankfurter as the perfect Supreme Court Justice, he would have botched the job. But life took over, and did it perfectly.”
The pattern traced in the memoir avoids the familiar, the so-to-speak Aristotelian, stopping-places of school, college, marriage, etc., only to accentuate the perpetual freshness of life taking over in a series of novel experiences. “The Radiant Morn” is the title of the chapter on boyhood. It speaks of a life “wholly free . . . with the freedom of wild things.” Working on the railroad “revived a sense of freedom amidst uncoerced order . . . a priceless possession, joy in life.” Working with Brandeis left “the memory of . . . a voice always saying . . . ‘Lift up your hearts.’” In private practice at the firm of Covington and Burling, “I found myself more completely on my own than I had been with Justice Brandeis.” Years as a Washington lawyer fostered the capacity “to understand at once the uniqueness of unprecedented situations and immediately to set about devising new and practical ways of dealing with them.” Even the sad, short time at the Treasury is set down to “an ambition for adventure” that lasted “well into middle life.” And with the decision to enter the State Department, life once again takes over. Of the consultations with his wife and partners that led to that decision, Mr. Acheson writes: “How futile these exercises in thought and consultation are! Mere rationalization of decisions already made. Forces stronger than reason determined the result . . . the world was moving . . . sweeping me with it. I was too conscious of this, too restless even to want to escape the current.”
To live in Washington and maintain an ambition for adventure in the 1920's was to be involved with causes as much as with cases. Mr. Acheson was closely connected with people who fought for the League of Nations, for the rights of labor, and for the civil liberties threatened by the “hysteria which swept the country in 1919 and 1920.” He came to know not only Brandeis, but Samuel Gompers, the La Follettes, Stuart Chase, and Sinclair Lewis. On Inaugural Day 1921, he watched as Woodrow Wilson entered retirement in the house on S Street, and he was there watching again at Wilson's funeral. Once he imagined that he might work for a lawyer who “was at the time counsel for District 12 of the United Mine Workers”—John L. Lewis.
But plainly his heart was not in the reforming business. Looking back now, he has his doubts about even the League of Nations: “It is hard to believe that our membership would have altered the trends which were developing in America, Europe and Asia, that those in authority would have understood any better what was occurring in the world around them and acted any differently than they did.” By the early 1930's he had explicitly broken with radical innovation-one of the reasons that led to the fight over devaluation of gold which ended in his forced resignation as Under Secretary of the Treasury.
Even at the time, sitting at the feet of Brandeis, he was not really comfortable with the liberal position; and nothing shows this better than a brilliant sketch of Brandeis that he sent to Frankfurter in 1920. He passed over the passionate Zionist. He passed over the moralist “appalled” (in Alexander Bickel's words) “by helplessness, dependence, irresponsibility.” He passed over the great defender of the laboring man who in a case on the rights of seamen (again in Bickel's words) “started writing before he had the citations.” He did not see that individualism and skepticism were mainly useful tools in the fight against the defenses of privilege as they then existed. On the contrary, Mr. Acheson took these for absolute values. He wrote of the Justice:
He isn't more than wistfully moved by the possibility of applying intelligence to life on a large scale because he knows there isn't that much intelligence to apply. Instead—as I see him—he thinks that the great end in life lies with the individual mind, in building up its own worlds, in its explanations and darings and triumphs over weaknesses and fears and laziness, and perhaps something more—but that I don't guess at. But he sees that for the most the road to this is quite shut off and for the rest it is getting more and more impossible as great stupid institutions, growing larger and larger, fall across the way, and crowd into the little space which the individual has.
What acheson saw in Brandeis was a strain that never disappeared from his own make-up. More conspicuously than any other public man of the postwar era, perhaps, Acheson has been a gentleman of the old school. And while it is nowhere explicitly mentioned, the influence of the old school, the part of tradition in his life, shines through the Acheson memoir. Fiorello LaGuardia spoke for most Americans when he declared: “I have no family tree.” But in Acheson's case, the family line was strong and identifiable—prosperous Scotch-English and Anglo-Irish merchants and soldiers who emigrated to Canada and prospered more. At his boyhood home in Connecticut, the Union Jack was flown on the Queen's birthday, and the Queen was toasted in claret. The family creed was in keeping with its pedigree. Of his father Mr. Acheson writes:
As a prelate he was a baffling man, widely read in theology and Christian doctrine, yet rarely speaking of either, privately or in his sermons, which so far as I can remember dealt more with ethics and conduct. But no conviction could have been deeper than his in a code of conduct, based on perceptions of what was decent and civilized for man inextricably caught up in social relationships. If his goal was the salvation of his soul, it was a salvation by works performed with charity and humor as well as zeal. Through this mixture of belief ran a strong strain of stoicism. Much in life could not be affected or mitigated, and, hence, must be borne. Borne without complaint, because complaints were a bore and nuisance to others and undermined the serenity essential to endurance.
Civilized behavior marked by stoicism and humor—the earmarks of the gentleman—remain the Acheson qualities par excellence. Very few men have been subjected to the public sandbagging that was reserved for Acheson during the last years of the Truman administration. But except for a gratuitous shot at Walter Lippmann, the memoir does not look back in anger. On the contrary, what must have been difficult times in life, notably at Groton, are delicately suppressed. Even from the most painful experience recounted in the memoirs—the resignation as Under Secretary of the Treasury—Mr. Acheson draws a comfort that expresses both stoicism and the traditional set of values. He recounts that years later, when some official was making heavy weather about a letter of resignation, Roosevelt handed the draft back to Steve Early and said: “Return it to him and tell him to ask Dean Acheson how a gentleman resigns.” The same sense of traditionalism—of the gentleman triumphing over the ruder species—runs through the exultant account of Frankfurter's confirmation hearings, and of the baffling of Senator Pat McCarran.
But the sense of tradition, if it provided no small part of the “joy in life,” seems also to have had a limiting role. Washington today is full of Achesonians, younger men who turn easily and confidently to the ex-Secretary for advice in the handling of private and public business. The memoir makes plain that Acheson, too, had his idols among older men. “From the first moment I saw Justice Holmes, I succumbed to hero worship,” he writes. For Frankfurter, Brandeis, General George Marshall, and the senior partners in Covington and Burling, he had feelings only slightly less adoring. But not one of his own contemporaries is even much mentioned, let alone celebrated. It is as if Mr. Acheson was never comfortable with the men of his own generation, but only in the kind of relationships where he could play disciple to mentors or mentor to disciples.
Ultimately the sense of tradition was to find expression in the most prominent features of the Acheson foreign policy. The emphasis on Europe over the underdeveloped countries and on military and economic power as a means of building resistance to hostile forces, have been, since the beginning, common-places of the Establishment coalition. The delicate reticence that is so much a part of the gentleman's style, and that is so much a mark of the memoir, explains to no small degree the merciless sandbagging. How could a Joe McCarthy, faced with such reticence about what was most obvious, not suspect that there was some trickery afoot, even a conspiracy against his kind?
But at all times, unlike his successors, Acheson displayed the quality he attributed to lawyers of his own stripe—the ability “to understand at once the uniqueness of unprecedented situations and immediately to set about devising new and practical ways of dealing with them.” There lay his greatness. He played probably the leading role in the development of the Greek-Turkish aid program, of the Marshall Plan, of NATO, of the concept of an Atlantic Community linked to a unified Europe that would anchor and tame the Germans, and in the resistance against aggression in Korea through the machinery of the United Nations. By no mere accident, the Acheson era was the creative heyday of American foreign policy.
The acheson era is now passed. So is the Acheson style. Foreign policy has been professionalized. It is a job for those who grind at it night and day over the years, not for brilliant amateurs. Hardly anyone now concerned with its closest workings in Washington has had the opportunity to develop the wit, the language, the originality and flair that marked Mr. Acheson's approach. Fittingly, at the end Mr. Acheson writes: “Clotho found new yarns of life to spin, and Lachesis, She of the Lot, drew her chances from greater odds. Only Atropos hung back and, happily withheld her shears, as the thread lengthened.”