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Dean of the Cold War


Most Europeans think of Dean Acheson as the most distinguished American secretary of state in this century, the progenitor of the Marshall Plan, the sponsor of the Franco-German alliance, and the man who brought into being the North Atlantic Treaty, which committed America to the defense of Europe against Soviet Russia. Yet in his own country Acheson was for years seen in some quarters as a villain. When in 1947 he told Congress America must take over Britain’s role in protecting Greece and Turkey, the isolationists accused him of pulling Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire. He got little credit in Congress for this display of anticommunism. The China lobby declared that he had “lost China” for not giving aid on the European scale to Chiang Kai-shek. Senator William Jenner called him a Communist and Mao’s triumph the result of his treachery.

That he immediately called for a response to the invasion of South Korea made him vulnerable when the war there went sour. Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska told him “the blood of our boys in Korea” was on his shoulders. Meanwhile Senator McCarthy was calling for the dismissal of some hundred card-carrying Communists in the State Department who were, he said, protected by “this pompous diplomat in striped pants with his phony British accent,” a man who declared that Christ was a Communist. In 1950 the Republican Party caucus in the House voted unanimously for his removal from office and the Senate caucus concurred by twenty-five votes to five.

By 1970 the abuse came from another quarter. Acheson was now demonized by the left. Was it not he who had played the anti-Communist card first in 1947 when he said that if Greece fell, then, “like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east,” and would even spread to Italy and France? Who but Acheson begat the cold war and the Truman Doctrine—a mad open-ended commitment to intervene anywhere that “freedom” was at stake even if the regime to be defended was a police state? Acheson, so the indictment ran, connived at the rearmament of Germany and opposed George Kennan’s plan to make a unified Germany a neutral country with the occupying forces withdrawn to the frontiers. People credited him with the Marshall Plan, but the idea was claimed to be as much Walter Lippmann’s as his. And what were the consequences of the European Recovery Program and NATO? The Stalinization of Czechoslovakia and the blockade of Berlin.

In fact—so the argument ran—the cold war was unnecessary: the USSR was neither expansionist nor aggressive; there was never any danger of a third world war in Europe. And Acheson, it was alleged, continued to have a bad influence after he left office in 1953. Who advised Kennedy to bomb the missile sites in Cuba? Who was a hawk over Vietnam? Acheson. In Asia and Africa he was the friend of the colonial powers, hostile to nationalists like Mussadaq in Iran, friendly to the French in Indochina and to Salazar in the Portuguese colonies. He even was friendly to the racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia. He despised Congress, called his opponents ignoramuses, and displayed a breathtaking arrogance.

Seven years ago James Chace set to work to resolve these conflicting views. A lot has been written about Acheson by himself, by his son David, by the Yale historian Gaddis Smith, and especially by Douglas Brinkley, who scrutinized the details of Acheson’s foreign policy.1 I am sorry Chace’s book does not tell us more about him as a friend, a husband, a family man, or about his humorous outlook on life. But Chace has written the first full political biography of Acheson and it is an excellent book. It is not a largely critical work like William Bundy’s recent study of Nixon and Kissinger.2 Chace admires Acheson as secretary of state. He examines the issues that crossed his desk, explains the setting in which he formed his policy and his dealings with his opponents and supporters, and sets out the reasons for the decisions that he ultimately put to the President.

Unlike Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Nixon, Truman did not want to make foreign policy. He wanted to have his views respected, to be consulted, and to have the right to make the final decision. Acheson saw that he got what he wanted. He never attempted, as Truman’s first secretary of state, James Byrnes, did, to marginalize the President. He was the only member of the administration to welcome Truman back to Washington at the railway station after the disastrous congressional elections of 1946. Truman never forgot. Both men put loyalty first of all virtues. To his surprise Acheson found Truman had read works of history and was better informed about remote Central Asia and its past than he was. Like Acheson Truman enjoyed making decisions; he liked jokes; he was gregarious and relished Acheson’s martinis.

Acheson had a gift not granted to all foreign secretaries. He got on with other statesmen because they trusted him. Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, called him “me lad,” though he had several quarrels with him; but Acheson could come across with the kind of joke that would defuse a row. Adenauer and Schuman both admired him, and De Gaulle, whose policies in Europe Acheson often opposed, exclaimed, when Acheson came to brief him over the Cuban crisis, “Voilà un homme“—and even spoke a sentence to him in English. Superficially he got on with Eden though he found him, as everyone else did, touchy. When a stroke killed Acheson in 1971 he was writing a letter about a trip he and Eden were to take together. He never concealed from anyone his conviction that America was now the ruler of the West even if he masked the reality that Western Europe was a set of client states.

His enemies sniped at him for aping the British, but he did not even dress like an Englishman. Few Englishmen dress well, and when they do they look like tailors’ dummies. They lack that suppressed spontaneity that marked Acheson’s fedora or his Farnworth Reed suits worn with American bravura. Nor did he allow the British to put anything over on him. In 1940 he endorsed Cordell Hull’s insistence that Britain must end at once imperial preference in its trade policies if the deal to lease fifty destroyers to Britain was to go through. Luckily Pearl Harbor made the question moot, but difficulties in economic relations with Britain were to arise again when Keynes at Bretton Woods in 1945 was forced to agree in principle to the convertibility of sterling. In 1946 Acheson opposed unsuccessfully the one-year deadline for free convertibility of sterling into dollars as a condition of making a large loan to Britain. He was right. At the end of that year sterling became convertible and within months Britain was bankrupt. Clinton in his dealings with Russia’s economy should have learned from Acheson’s experience.

Acheson had already decided that Britain was finished as a world power and the warm Anglo-American alliance of the war years was at an end. He felt affection for Bevin and liked Ambassador Oliver Franks, but that did not affect his demand that all copies of a document drawn up by the Foreign Office entitled “The Special Relationship” be destroyed. America, he believed, should favor European integration; the Franco-German alliance was more important to America than Britain was. He thought British policy obtuse when in 1951 the British imposed an oil embargo on Egypt; and he told Eden the British were behaving like rug merchants in Iran when he refused to join Britain in a coup to overthrow Mussadaq.

He thought Britain’s Suez adventure in 1956 foolish, but he blamed his successor, John Foster Dulles, first for precipitating the crisis by canceling the US financing of the Aswan High Dam and so goading Nasser into retaking the canal, and then for lining up with the Soviet Union and condemning America’s allies. In 1962, at West Point, he delivered his famous aphorism that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. No one likes to be told unpleasant truths in public. His British friends winced, but it was characteristic of Macmillan (despite Kennedy’s advice) to respond in a speech of immeasurable pomposity. To this day the British have not learned the lesson. They still pay for an independent nuclear deterrent that Acheson regarded as futile, and still dither about their place in the European Community.

Perhaps the most grotesque of the accusations against Acheson was that he was an architect of the cold war. Whoever started the cold war—a war that was inevitable—it was not America. Even Ernest Bevin, who from his years as a labor leader was deeply hostile to communism, was still reluctant to admit that negotiating with the Soviet Union was impossible until mid-1946; and it was not until a year later that America reestablished the wartime alliance with Britain and France. Acheson had resigned as assistant secretary of state at the end of the European war but was brought back by Truman in 1945 to recommend how the atomic bomb should be handled. Chace describes how he began by wanting to share the secrets of atomic power with the Russians on the grounds that scientific knowledge cannot be kept secret. James Byrnes disagreed, and Acheson was then told to hatch a plan with David Lilienthal and Robert Oppenheimer to put the bomb under international control.

This time it was Bernard Baruch who scuppered the plan by attaching such conditions to the controls that the Soviets used their veto on the Security Council to kill it. Chace believes that if Roosevelt had lived, a workable international agreement might have been reached. But would Stalin have agreed to constraints on Soviet use of nuclear weapons? Roosevelt envisaged the postwar world as being divided between America and Russia. He welcomed the dissolution of the British Empire and other colonial regimes in Asia and Africa; and Acheson opposed any Anglo-American partnership that could be construed as directed against Moscow. He agreed with Walter Lippmann that America’s interests were not identical with Britain’s imperial interests.

In fact anyone who was in Berlin in 1945 and 1946 knew that the cold war was already in full swing. The Russians were forcing the Social Democratic Party to merge with the Communist Party and hence ensure a German Communist municipal government in Berlin. Despite the Yalta agreement to hold “free and unfettered elections” in Poland, Stalin refused to allow the London Poles to return to Poland. In the Mediterranean he demanded that Russian bases be established in the Dardanelles and laid claim to Russian territory lost to Turkey after the First World War. In Iran he refused to move Soviet troops out of the northern part of the country. Stalin was in fact the first to declare cold war. In a speech on February 9, 1946, a full month before Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech at Fulton, capitalism and communism, he said, could not coexist.

  1. 1

    Douglas Brinkley, Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71 (Yale University Press, 1992); Dean Acheson and the Making of US Foreign Policy, edited by Douglas Brinkley (St. Martin’s, 1993); Gaddis Smith, The American Secretaries of State and their Diplomacy: Dean Acheson, Vol. 16 (Cooper Square, 1972.)

  2. 2

    William Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (Hill and Wang, 1998), reviewed in The New York Review, August 13, 1998.

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