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of Germany and opposed George Kennan’s plan to make a unified Germany a neutral country with the occupying forces withdrawn to the frontiers.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 …

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