When French civil servants retire, they are often awarded major jobs in government-owned banks and industrial companies, but they almost never return to public life. Retiring political leaders in Britain may remain in the House of Commons as members of the loyal opposition or be given a seat in the House of Lords. Although a few may find work in the City or in British industry, they rarely move back to important jobs in government.
Dean Acheson took full advantage of the almost uniquely American practice that permits gifted and ambitious people to move freely between the public and private sectors. At the end of each of his three tours in government service, the last as Truman’s secretary of state between 1949 and 1953, he returned to his law practice; but as a private citizen he still undertook special government assignments and provided formal or informal advice to the administration in power. These activities are the subject of Douglas Brinkley’s interesting book.
Still, as Brinkley observes, Acheson, on leaving the State Department in 1953, could not take advantage of the flexibility of the American system until he had spent eight years in the political wilderness. His resignation as secretary of state did not immediately purge him of the stigma of calumny, for he had offended vocal elements of the American public, and particularly Senator Joe McCarthy and his allies. Not only was he incapable of suffering fools gladly—a trait that gave him intense pride despite its high cost—but, during the most squalid moments of the McCarthy madness, he had refused to conceal his scorn for the unctuous expressions of anti-Communist outrage that became common at the time. The State Department officials set up a loyalty program and purged those who were less than enthralled by the Chiang Kai-shek regime in China (which meant virtually everyone with first-hand experience in dealing with it), but Acheson declined to be swept away in the general madness.
His behavior invited particular notoriety when, after Alger Hiss was found guilty, he failed to act as Dickens’s righteous knitting women did in calling for the guillotine. Instead he deliberately proclaimed: “I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss.” Acheson did not take that stand because he was fond of Alger Hiss; on the contrary, as many of us knew, he regarded Hiss as stuffy and rigid. Nor could he ever forgive him the venal sin of lacking a sense of humor. He refused to join the howling mob primarily because he was appalled by the tawdry antics of opportunists (including some of his old friends) who were competing to prove their loyalty (primarily to themselves) by noisily condemning Hiss.
For this idiosyncratic reaction Acheson paid a bitter price. Throughout our period of national insanity, no administration could be publicly associated with such a well-known dissenter without inviting censure.
I first came to know Acheson at the very beginning of the New Deal, after he had been fired as acting secretary of the Treasury and…
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