Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department
“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.”
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 no small part, to his own contentiousness and belligerence. Although much abused by headline-hunting right-wing politicians such as Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, he also abused others and suffered from his inability to conceive that his might not be the ultimate wisdom on every issue. His career in public life is the story of a man who was too clever for himself, whose intelligence was often self-destructive, and whose arrogance never allowed him to realize it.
This densely printed volume of nearly 800 pages is a defense of those policies taken when Acheson was a good deal more than merely “present at the creation” of the post-war world. The prose rolls on majestically and inexorably in a mighty tide of recapitulations, explanations, character sketches, put-downs of those who disagreed or displeased, and self-justifications. It is an impressive but not quite convincing achievement. While one does not expect the memoirs of public officials to be dispassionate, it is unfortunate that Acheson is not able to look back on that period with the objectivity gained from hind-sight. Acheson not only knows what happened, but orchestrated the Cold War empire during its formative years. He is singularly equipped to help put that dark period into an honest historical perspective. But what he has produced, however fascinating, is something less than the whole truth, not so much false as it is selective.
Much that is relevant has either been omitted or summarily dismissed. Invariably these are items that cast doubt on the wisdom of his judgment or the ineluctability of his decisions. “It could not have been otherwise” is the theme that runs through his account of the famous White Paper on China, as well as of policies of such dubious wisdom as the Truman Doctrine, the rearmament of Germany, the Japanese Peace treaty, and the intervention in Korea. That it could, perhaps should, have been otherwise is apparently, from these pages, not a judgment that an honorable man could have held at the time.
With customary modesty Acheson reminds us that he has a reputation for “not suffering fools gladly.” What he seems to mean is that he does not suffer critics, for he records few instances of arguments other than his own as having any merit. He is contemptuous of Congress for daring to infringe on what he deems executive prerogatives, such as undeclared acts of war. He upbraids Senator Kenneth Wherry for suggesting that perhaps Truman should have sought Congressional authorization before sending troops to Korea, and chastises what he terms “the kind of sulky opposition that characterized the last two years of relations between the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Johnson Administration”—in other words, the Fulbright Committee’s hearings on the Vietnam war and the hastily granted and leisurely repented Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
Among the numerous individuals who crossed his path and made his life more troublesome, there is curiously not a single reference to Richard M. Nixon, who first showed his gift for phrase-making by referring to the then Secretary of State as the “Dean of the Cowardly College of Communist Containment.” How curious that this episode seems to have slipped Acheson’s otherwise retentive mind.
A broker in power, Acheson was fascinated by its use. Like Truman, for whom he expresses so much admiration, he exercised it with a pleasure bordering on the obscene. He favored the unconditional surrender of Japan and never questioned Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. When Mosadeq nationalized the British-owned oil wells in Iran, he supported the oil cartel’s embargo, cut off American aid, tried to drive the nationalist premier from office, and set the stage for the CIA coup in the summer of 1953 that brought back the Shah and cut the American oil companies a sizable slice of the formerly British-controlled pie. Like his disciple Dean Rusk, he was a military-minded Secretary of State: a hawk in Berlin and Korea, a hawk at the Bay of Pigs and during the Cuban missile crisis, and a hawk on Vietnam. In his book of diplomacy, negotiation is a dirty word, the sort of thing a respectable great power ought not to engage in. He felt, as Coral Bell pointed out in her critique of Acheson’s diplomacy, Negotiation from Strength, you cannot negotiate when you are weak, and when you are strong there is no need to negotiate. He certainly saw no need to negotiate with the Russians (“Soviet authorities are not moved to agreement by negotiation”) and instead preferred to create what he called “situations of strength” to gain what he wanted without giving up anything in return.
George Kennan’s various proposals for a settlement with the Russians had little appeal for Acheson, who felt that “to seek a modus vivendi with Moscow would prove chimerical.” He did, however, like certain parts of Kennan’s analysis of Soviet behavior contained in the “long telegram” from Moscow of February, 1946 (later summarized in the famous “X” article as the “containment doctrine”), particularly statements about the “Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs,” and its methods to “infiltrate, divide and weaken the West.” Acheson took what he wanted from Kennan, rejecting as of “no help” his recommendations that we try to understand Russia’s view of the world and keep our own house in order. But he found that Kennan’s “predictions and warnings could not have been better” for the get-tough policy he was already formulating.2
The first testing of the new diplomacy came early in 1947 when the British informed Washington that they could no longer afford the cost of supporting the Greek royalist government against communist insurgents. Acheson, substituting for Secretary Marshall, convinced Truman of the need to preserve the Western sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Congress was asked to provide $400 million for emergency aid to Greece, with Turkey thrown in for good measure. During the initial briefing, the Congressmen were skeptical about providing help for Britain’s client state. Instead of arguing that the balance of power required US intervention, an argument which he evidently assumed his audience would not understand, Acheson chose to scare them with the specter of communism running rampant. “Like the apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one,” he told the skeptical legislators,
the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the East. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic communist parties in Western Europe. The Soviet Union was playing one of the greatest gambles in history at minimal cost. It did not need to win all the possibilities. Even one or two offered immense gains. We and we alone were in a position to break up the play. These were the stakes that British withdrawal from the eastern Mediterranean offered to an eager and ruthless opponent.
Of course, as Milovan Djilas later pointed out, not only was Stalin not instigating the communist uprising in Greece, but was actually trying to discourage it and told the Yugoslavs to stop supporting it. “What do you think,” Djilas quotes Stalin as saying in February 1948, “that Great Britain and the United States—the United States, the most powerful state in the world—will permit you to break their line of communication in the Mediterranean? Nonsense. And we have no navy. The uprising in Greece must be stopped, and as quickly as possible.”
But Acheson was not interested in such subtleties at the time, nor is he now. His lurid analysis scared the legislators, and the Greek-Turkish aid bill was sent to Congress on March 12, 1947, encapsuled in the message that came to be known as the Truman Doctrine. In his pride over the doctrine, Acheson neglects to mention what one learns from Charles Bohlen’s recently published The Transformation of American Foreign Policy3—that General Marshall, who was at the time en route to Moscow with Bohlen, thought the message unduly severe and asked Truman to change it:
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $6.00.↩
In his Memoirs 1925-1950 (Atlantic, Little Brown, 1967) Kennan has written about the containment policy: "The failure consisted in the fact that our own government, finding it difficult to understand a political threat as such and to deal with it in other than military terms, and grievously misled, in particular, by its own faulty interpretation of the significance of the Korean war, failed to take advantage of the opportunities for useful political discussion when, in later years, such opportunities began to open up, and exerted itself, in its military preoccupations, to seal and perpetuate the very division of Europe which it should have been concerned to remove. It was not 'containment' that failed; it was the intended follow-up that never occurred."↩
Norton, 130 pp., $3.95.↩
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $6.00.↩
In his Memoirs 1925-1950 (Atlantic, Little Brown, 1967) Kennan has written about the containment policy: “The failure consisted in the fact that our own government, finding it difficult to understand a political threat as such and to deal with it in other than military terms, and grievously misled, in particular, by its own faulty interpretation of the significance of the Korean war, failed to take advantage of the opportunities for useful political discussion when, in later years, such opportunities began to open up, and exerted itself, in its military preoccupations, to seal and perpetuate the very division of Europe which it should have been concerned to remove. It was not ‘containment’ that failed; it was the intended follow-up that never occurred.”↩
Norton, 130 pp., $3.95.↩