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Present After the Creation

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 while I was a junior lawyer for the Farm Credit Administration. Though it was in those innocent days before the vogue for jogging, I exercised by taking long, fast walks two or three times a month. One day I recognized Dean Acheson from his pictures and, being a brash young man, introduced myself. Since he was also walking briskly he banteringly asked me to join him, and when we had completed our exercise we adjourned to a bar where, inspired by cocktails, we casually agreed to resume our exercise at an appointed hour in the future. Dean failed to show up, explaining:

When I was clerking for Justice Brandeis, I used to exercise each afternoon with another justice’s clerk. When that clerk failed to appear on time he later explained: “I once read in a physiology book that the function of exercise is to burn off waste tissue; last night a doctor friend told me that alcohol has that same effect; thus, rather than exercising with you yesterday, I simply took a bottle and went to bed.” Thus let’s forget this preliminary nonsense, George, and go find a bar.

Shortly thereafter I returned to private practice in Chicago. I did not see Acheson again until 1942 when he was assistant secretary of state for economic affairs and I was a legal counsel for the Lend-Lease Administration. Then came another gap in our friendship until 1961, when, having joined the Kennedy Administration as under secretary of state, I repeatedly turned to him for advice. I drew not only on his experience in the State Department but also on the knowledge he had acquired as acting secretary of the treasury in 1933 while the appointed secretary, William H. Woodin, was slowly dying. When Roosevelt raised the price of gold Acheson broke with him, but he did so with quiet dignity. In fact, he took pride that when another Treasury official later behaved in a less sporting way, the President told him to “go talk to Dean Acheson and learn how a gentleman resigns.”

As a member of an interdepartmental committee created to deal with the balance of payments deficit, I needed Acheson’s support for my continuing effort to prevent our government from sacrificing sensible policies in order to take what I thought were distorted and embarrassingly stringent measures to halt the outflow of dollars. Acheson supplied me with a closely reasoned memorandum which was, I thought at the time, a model of inexorable logic—no doubt because it agreed with my own views.

Our most serious disagreement occurred during the Cuban missile crisis—by no means Acheson’s finest moment. After serving as secretary of state during the Berlin airlift and the Korean War, he had acquired a set of cold war reflexes and believed that America must strike back with force at whatever it believed to be Soviet aggression. He asserted categorically that our discovery of the missiles in Cuba required a decisive reprisal. I thought, on the contrary, that any irrevocable action on our part would be unwise; before acting in ways that would probably compel the Soviets to respond with force, we should first fully test their intentions through diplomatic means. Thus, I vigorously supported the quarantine policy President Kennedy finally adopted.

As facts have subsequently revealed, that policy was more prudent than we then believed. None of us on the so-called EXCOM (the group that advised President Kennedy during the crisis) knew that, in addition to the medium-range missiles targeted on the United States which our aerial photography had discovered, the Soviets had also sent a number of short-range missiles to support their own military contingents in Cuba. The general in command has repeatedly said that, contrary to what we assumed to be established Soviet practice, the Kremlin gave him full authority to use the nuclear warheads against any United States force that might try to invade Cuba. Since the proponents of an immediate response regarded an air strike as merely a first step toward an invasion, we might well have set off a nuclear exchange if we had adopted Acheson’s strategy.

Dean and I also found ourselves in philosophical disagreement on one other issue—the necessity of the war in Vietnam. Again conditioned by his cold war experience, Acheson regarded our Vietnam involvement as largely a replay of the Korean War. He was aware, at least in general terms, of the one-man rear guard action I was then conducting against the war, for it was mentioned in one or more of the meetings with President Kennedy to which he was invited.

I had first warned against the initial escalation of the war in a conversation I had with President Kennedy in November 1962, but his reaction had discouraged me from further opposition. Then on October 5, 1964, I began a campaign to extract the US from Vietnam, preparing a memorandum for President Johnson challenging all the assumptions of our Vietnam policy. I wrote that memorandum immediately after the so-called Tonkin Gulf incident, in which some small North Vietnamese vessels were reported to have attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. I discussed the memorandum at length with McNamara, Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy but did not send it to President Johnson until February 1965. Thereafter I regularly sent the President memos arguing that we should extricate America from what was, in my view, an immoral and unwinnable war.

In spite of my arguments our Air Force began bombing North Vietnam in 1965. By then, I was desperately looking for some support for my isolated opposition. I was, after all, only a junior cabinet officer, and if I were to reverse the ominous trend of events, I needed the agreement of at least one high-level colleague.

Since I could find no one in the government who shared my view, or at least was willing to say so to the President, I undertook to enlist the support of Dean Acheson. By then I had already written a brief memorandum outlining a political solution that would not require negotiating a formal agreement with the Vietcong or North Vietnamese. The general scheme I proposed included an offer of amnesty to all members of the Vietcong who would cease fighting, a phased schedule for establishing a constitutional government in South Vietnam based on elections in which all peaceful citizens, including Vietcong, could take part, a variety of social and economic programs that were to be outlined in detail, and an announcement by the prime minister that foreign troops would begin withdrawing as soon as the insurgency stopped and the government had effectively extended its authority throughout South Vietnam. My memorandum, however, was merely the sketch of an approach and I had no free time to develop it into a full-fledged plan.

Encouraged by the President’s expressed willingness to give the idea a fair trial (provided, of course, that the South Vietnamese government were prepared to go along), I sought outside help. Although Dean Acheson, I knew, was convinced that we had to see the war through to the end, I still thought that he might not resist the temptation of a fresh idea. Thus I enlisted his assistance along with that of a former colleague of mine, Lloyd Cutler, already a prominent Washington lawyer, to turn the memorandum into a detailed program. Acheson, entirely on his own initiative, then wrote a comprehensive draft of roughly thirty-five pages, outlining a comprehensive version of a proposal to transfer the Vietnam conflict “from the military to the political arena.”

On May 16, 1966, Dean and I together presented what became known as the “Ball-Acheson Plan” to President Johnson, who expressed interest and a willingness to test it if the South Vietnam government could be convinced to go along with it.

In the days that followed Acheson sent me three highly classified memoranda on the tactics to be used in persuading our representatives in Vietnam and the Vietnamese government to go forward. In those memoranda, he emphasized that, because of the sensitivity of the United States position, we must at all costs avoid creating the impression that the plan was intended as a prelude to America’s disengagement (although I strongly hoped that that was what it would in fact achieve). Instead, we should underline our belief that the plan would strengthen “the position, image and efforts of the South Vietnamese government.”

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