Commissar of the Cold War

Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department

by Dean Acheson
Norton, 798 pp., $15.00

Dean Acheson
Dean Acheson; drawing by David Levine

“I hope that Mr. Acheson will write a book explaining how he persuaded himself to believe that a government could be conducted without the support of the people.”

—Walter Lippmann

The wish has now been granted. Seventeen years after leaving the State Department, Dean Acheson has finally unveiled his memoirs of those tumultuous days. He was wise to wait. The unhappy Truman Administration, embellished by the passing of time and the fading of memories, has taken on a historical patina. The New Left is too young to remember the China White Paper, the Berlin airlift, or the Korean War, and probably never even heard of John Carter Vincent or Owen Lattimore. Cold War liberals hope that most people have forgotten their role in the Truman Doctrine and the rearmament of Germany—two of the capstones of Acheson’s tenure as Secretary of State. And the Right, which once, bizarre as it now seems, accused him of being sympathetic to the communists, has found new virtues in the tart elder statesman who defends the Vietnam war and extols the misunderstood governments of Rhodesia and South Africa.

Acheson’s apologia pro vita sua is a masterly defense of his roles as Assistant Secretary of State from 1941-45, Under Secretary from 1945-47, and Secretary of State from 1949-53. He does not in this book deal with the earlier years, covered with considerable charm in his memoir Morning and Noon.1 The son of an Episcopal bishop, Acheson attended Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law School, and went to Washington in 1919 as law clerk to Justice Brandeis. There he met the mighty and the rich, joined the influential law firm that is today known as Covington and Burling, briefly served as Under Secretary of the Treasury under Roosevelt, established the contacts and polished the manner that allowed him to circulate in the highest realms of finance and government, and returned to the Administration at the outbreak of the war. It is at this point that his present narrative begins.

As is evident from his prose and his public behavior, Acheson is neither cold nor unflappable. Beneath the urbane elegance and the studied arrogance there is an emotional man whose temper has more than once got the better of him and who likes a good fight even if he has to pick it himself. At several points he describes himself as a would-be schoolteacher, trying to inform the ninnies in Congress and elsewhere on the facts of political life. But the more appropriate word is politician. Acheson was never interested in education. What he wanted was compliance, acceptance, surrender. People were stupid in so far as they opposed him, and enlightened whenever they agreed. Like most other ambitious politicians, he gloried in the manipulation of men and institutions.

As chief architect of American foreign policy under Harry Truman, Acheson had a stormy tenure in the State Department—owing, in…

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