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of Germany and opposed George Kennan’s plan to make a unified Germany a neutral country with the occupying forces withdrawn to the frontiers.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

Yet Truman and Acheson were still willing to give negotiation a chance. Truman thought Stalin’s speech was the kind of stunt to rally the Party faithful that any leader in a democracy might have made before an election. But in early 1946 a Soviet atomic spy ring in Canada was exposed, just as the Russians were refusing to join the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Then there arrived from Moscow George Kennan’s famous “long telegram.” It explained why Russia would not accept a modus vivendi with the United States. The Soviets were sensitive only to the logic of force. If an opponent had the power and was ready to use it, they would retreat; if not, then they would take what they could.

When Truman appointed General Marshall secretary of state in 1947, Marshall made Acheson his chief of staff: all recommendations in the department had to come through him, and he was the key policy adviser. How was Congress to be persuaded to take over Britain’s role in world affairs and strengthen Western Europe in the face of Soviet pressure? The House had just voted a $6 billion cut in the budget, including a $1 billion cut for the War Department. In a meeting with congressional leaders General Marshall made a leaden speech and the omens looked bad until Acheson jumped in and spoke with passion about the infected apples in a barrel. Senator Vandenberg, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, was impressed, but told Truman that he would have to “make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.” The Truman Doctrine followed. America would now “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Whatever the long-term consequences of the Truman Doctrine, Acheson was right in the short term. He believed that only by making a dramatic commitment could America convince Soviet Russia that it would not be pushed around.

His intention was to contain, not to destroy, communism. He wanted to persuade Congress that dealing with the Soviet menace and the weakness of the European economies would require aid that far exceeded the needs of Greece and Turkey. In May 1947 he spoke of the disintegration of Europe and the need “from considerations of self-interest and humanitarianism” for the US to finance a huge deficit in the world’s budget. He saw to it that the speech got world coverage and when James Reston of The New York Times asked Truman if that was his policy, Truman said it was. Meanwhile General Marshall, disillusioned by the continual stonewalling in Moscow over peace treaties with Germany and Austria, set everyone to work on the plan for assistance to Europe. How was the press to be made to realize that General Marshall’s commencement speech at Harvard should be front-page news? How could the Europeans be made to realize that a prodigious offer was theirs for the asking but that they had to prepare, not a shopping list, but a concerted plan for recovery? And since the offer was open to Russia and its satellites, what was to happen when Molotov met with Bevin and Bidault in Paris?

These six weeks were the most dramatic Acheson had known, and because I like drama in history I hoped that the evenhanded pace of Chace’s biography might have quickened when he described it. But it doesn’t. It is not as if there were not more drama to come: the sudden wire from Stalin to Molotov in Paris rejecting the Marshall Plan; the response by Ernest Bevin calling for the Western powers to merge the occupation zones in western Germany and to reform the German currency; the strike by two million French workers in the Communist-led trade unions denouncing American aid and the similar strikes that fall in Italy. The coup in Czechoslovakia followed in early 1948. This was the punishment of the Czechs for wanting to accept the Marshall Plan in 1947; after they were prevented from doing so by Soviet pressure they came under control of a Communist government that arrested and shot its opponents, and probably killed Jan Masaryk, the former foreign minister. These were the events that persuaded Congress to vote appropriations for the European Recovery Act.

By the time Acheson returned to his law firm in Washington in 1953 he had seen the foundations laid for what he was to call in his autobiography “the creation”—the creation of American hegemony in the West and, as Bevin predicted in Paris, the creation of a Western bloc. Truman, Chace tells us, had asked Acheson in 1948 to head the recovery program in Europe but he had refused. With characteristic unselfishness he told the President that if the Marshall Plan was to pass Congress, it must be endorsed by Vandenberg. Truman should accept Vandenberg’s nominee, Paul Hoffman, for the post. By the early 1950s all the building blocks were in place: Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty.

When Truman was reelected in 1948, General Marshall was in hospital. The President did not hesitate to ask Acheson to take his place. One of the best chapters in Chace’s book describes Acheson’s effect on the working practices of the State Department. Marshall used to say, “Don’t fight the problem: decide it,” and Acheson saw to it that decisions were made and everyone knew what everyone else was doing. He held a morning meeting of his top officials—and then as few meetings as possible. He was convinced by the experience of the blockade of Berlin in June 1948 that negotiation with the Russians was impossible: they would not play the diplomatic game by the old rules, by which each side made concessions and so reached an agreement tolerable to each. Their game was to force their opponent to accept Soviet terms by stonewalling and procrastination. The familiar Soviet tactic of refusing to accept anything but indefinite Four-Power government of Germany from Berlin was intensified when, faced with the Western powers’ decision to run West Germany as a separate state, the Soviets suddenly went back on their agreement to sign an Austrian peace treaty. Bevin congratulated Vishinsky on a new record. A Soviet agreement had lasted less than one day.

There were always those in Europe as well as in America who hoped that the West, by making some gesture, could lower the temperature of the cold war. George Kennan was one, and his relations with Acheson were fascinating. Each admired, and neither convinced, the other. Acheson found Kennan’s brilliant analyses of foreign affairs full of fine generalizations and feeble recommendations. Kennan recommended international control of the atomic bomb and later a moratorium on the hydrogen bomb. Should not America declare that it would never be the first to use the bomb? Acheson’s response was simple. Where does the national interest lie? Reliance on perpetual good will seemed to him to be a terrible policy.

In 1949 Kennan floated a plan to reunify Germany. The Soviets and the Allies should withdraw their troops to the frontiers: Germany would become a neutral power like Austria. Bevin and Schuman were horrified. To Acheson Kennan’s plan was a return to the old days of isolationism. It would mean the end of NATO, and militarily it made no sense for the Allies to be garrisoned in the Low Countries and France. He thought no better of the plan when Kennan restated it on the BBC in 1957. “Mr. Kennan has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships,” he said, “but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them. To Mr. Kennan there is no military threat in Europe.” That there was such a threat was clear when Stalin blockaded Berlin and Khrushchev told Kennedy to get out.

Acheson’s record on Europe was superb. In Chace’s account, he made only one serious blunder. Having been for days under examination by the Senate about America’s obligations toward NATO, he was asked by Senator Hickenlooper whether Americans would have to send “substantial numbers of troops over there.” The answer, said Acheson, was “a clear and absolute ‘No”’; and the Senate approved the treaty. Two years later four divisions were sent and the senator was understandably miffed.

It was in the Far East that the ambiguities of the Truman Doctrine emerged. To Walter Lippmann the doctrine seemed crazy, and he had a furious encounter over it with Acheson. On the long-term consequences Lippmann was right. From the Truman Doctrine flowed many of the disastrous US interventions in Vietnam, Central and South America, and Africa. Chace is right to observe that Acheson and other American officials failed to distinguish between America’s vital and its secondary interests. In early 1950, in a speech to the Press Club defining America’s vital interests in the Far East, he omitted Korea—though his revisionist opponents go too far when they argue that this omission persuaded Kim Il Sung to attack South Korea. Other critics have quoted the famous and noble pronouncement on America’s role abroad by John Quincy Adams:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Adams’s pronouncement did not make much sense in Europe but it made a lot of sense elsewhere—nowhere more so than in the Far East.

Not that there was any chance of its being adopted there. To many Americans China was a country that had been bullied by imperialist Europeans who sent gunboats to coerce her, whereas America sent missionaries and traders. During the war General Claire Chennault, among others, had encouraged Americans to regard Chiang Kai-shek as the gallant Nationalist leader who had held out against the Japanese, and military aid continued to flow to Chiang. Chiang was in fact a harsh and devious ruler and despised American efforts to make him settle his differences with Mao Zedong, who controlled northern China. These efforts were suddenly denounced by the US ambassador to China, General Hurley, who accused his embassy staff of siding with Mao and wanting “to pull the plug on Chiang Kai-Shek.”

Truman accordingly asked General Marshall before he retired from service to go to China and reconcile Chiang and Mao. When Marshall, having failed to do so, returned a year later, the pro-Nationalist members of Congress swore to hold up appropriations for European recovery unless millions of dollars were sent to Chiang. The aid to Chiang incensed Mao, who declared solidarity with the Soviet Union, the very thing Acheson had been hoping to avoid. Acheson took office the day Chiang accepted defeat, resigning as president of China while his armies melted away as Mao crossed the Yangtze.

Acheson thereupon published a white paper to justify American policy in China. It was a disaster. It enraged the China lobby, which found in it proof that America had sent too little too late to Chiang, and it offended Walter Lippmann, who said that its emotive language about communism had driven Mao into an alliance with Stalin. From then on Acheson was to hear that he had “lost China.”

Even the China lobby had opposed sending US forces to China, but when North Korea invaded the South, American opinion was almost unanimously in favor of sending troops to stem the invasion. Acheson advised Truman to call Congress back for official approval but the President followed other advice; and though Acheson prepared a paper citing eighty-five former occasions on which a President had ordered US troops into action without congressional approval, congressmen later were to call it “Truman’s war.” Virtually everyone assumed that the Soviets and Mao had ordered Kim Il Sung to attack, though in fact recent research shows that Kim took the initiative. Buoyed up by Communist rhetoric that the comrades in the South would rise up to join him, Kim may also have reasoned that if America would not send troops to help its longstanding ally Chiang, why should it send them to Syngman Rhee?

Acheson was to discover that there was a third force beyond his power to control: General MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The directives of the Joint Chiefs to the general were ambiguous. For instance, after his victory at Inchon in 1950 MacArthur was permitted to move rapidly north of the 38th parallel and to judge whether the presence of Soviet or Chinese forces in North Korea should halt his offensive. Lucius Battle (Acheson’s aide, whom he treated as a son) told his chief—at that instant preoccupied by NATO—that the orders to MacArthur were too vague. “For God’s sake, how old are you?” snapped Acheson. “Thirty-two.” “Are you willing to take on the Joint Chiefs?” Unknown to Acheson, General Marshall, who had returned as secretary of defense, sent MacArthur a telegram more or less telling him to use his own judgment on how far to advance in North Korea. When disaster struck and the Chinese drove the American forces back over the 38th parallel, MacArthur blamed Washington.

Marshall had never commanded an army in the field and Acheson found him reluctant to overrule MacArthur. The Joint Chiefs, so many years MacArthur’s juniors, did not dare to take him on. It was only after MacArthur wrote a letter to a congressman (which he promptly read on the floor of the House) criticizing the President and urging the use of Nationalist Chinese troops in Korea, that Acheson got the Joint Chiefs to advise Truman (who was furious with MacArthur’s insubordination) to dismiss him. MacArthur returned to a hysterical welcome in Washington.

While it was the military, not Truman and Acheson, who were mainly responsible for bungling the Korean War, Acheson was enduring a fearful onslaught on Capitol Hill. When Senator Kenneth Wherry said “the blood of our boys” was on Acheson’s shoulders, Chace writes, Acheson “found himself standing up and shouting” at Wherry, “‘Don’t you dare shake your dirty little finger in my face!’ Wherry bellowed that he could and he would, and he did.” Whereupon Acheson took a swing at him and his legal adviser wrapped himself around the incensed secretary of state, saying, “Take it easy, boss.” When the next day Acheson apologized to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Senator McKellar told him that he had once called Truman and told him that “we could pay off the national debt by putting you two on the vaudeville circuit.” Some months later, at the signing of the peace treaty with Japan, the Polish representative tried to buck the rules of procedure and continued to speak after Acheson had banged the gavel. Acheson rose as if to remove him from the platform by force and the Pole fled. The incident, recorded on television, did him much good.

But Senator McCarthy’s slime had begun to stick. Lippmann asked whether a secretary of state who so palpably had lost the confidence of Congress should not resign. At the hearings before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees on the Korean War in June 1951, he testified for eight days and undermined MacArthur’s evidence. Even the Joint Chiefs made it clear that they had not endorsed MacArthur’s strategy. Nevertheless the stalemate over the peace negotiations in Korea was exploited by the old isolationists. Joseph P. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover demanded cuts in European defense, and Senator Taft surpassed himself by demanding the withdrawal of troops from Berlin, enormous cuts in aid, and all-out war against Mao’s China.


Legislators in democracies speak with a sublime self-confidence about foreign affairs. They rarely consider how much pressure—in the last resort, military force—is needed to implement an interventionist policy and whether their country can afford such a policy in view of its treaty obligations to allies. Diplomats see their job as the elimination, or at least the reduction, of tension, conflict, and disruption. Acheson was tactful in Europe to draw a fig leaf over America’s power in order to impose its will. He understood the limits of American influence. Unlike Dulles, whose speeches encouraged Hungarians to revolt against their Communist rulers and who then found himself powerless to help them when Russian troops marched in, Acheson understood that America could hope only to contain communism, not destroy it. As Chace suggests, that was why he was so bitterly attacked in Congress.

But didn’t his arrogance destroy him? There seemed to him no limit to the innocence or ignorance of some congressmen. It was Lester Pearson, the prime minister of Canada, who said of Acheson, “Not only did he not suffer fools gladly, he did not suffer them at all.” The odd thing about him was that he appeared to be the archetypal WASP; but he was a WASP with a sting—a rebel. Not that he had any quarrel with society. The world and he got on very well together. But he would not knuckle under to authority. His father, an Episcopalian bishop, turned him out of the house for a year when his son called him a fool for preferring President Taft to Theodore Roosevelt. At Groton he bucked the spartan regime of its headmaster. Endicott Peabody told his mother to take him away since he would never make a Groton boy out of him. His mother replied she had not sent Dean there to be made into a Groton boy but to be educated, and she suggested Peabody should start doing so.

A Democrat who had grown up in largely Republican circles, he became an undersecretary of the Treasury under FDR in 1933 but refused to endorse the President’s scheme to devalue the dollar and inflate the currency by buying gold above the price fixed by statute. Acheson said it was illegal and resigned, to his father’s disgust. Chace makes it clear that it was Felix Frankfurter at the Harvard Law School who transformed him from a Yale clubman. He became clerk to Justice Brandeis and found in him—and even more in Justice Holmes—heroes to worship. In private practice he took satisfaction in prosecuting the US government at The Hague on behalf of Norwegian shipbuilders even when his senior partners in Covington and Burling, appalled at the line Acheson was taking, told him to shut up.

It was this rebel streak in him that provoked his most notorious political indiscretion. He was determined to show the McCarthyites that there were other values in life by refusing to condemn Alger Hiss, guilty or not. He would not take advice from anyone about how to handle the press after Hiss had been convicted. He assured Lucius Battle, Chace writes, that, when he was asked for comment, “all he was going to do was quote Saint Matthew from the Bible.” (“…I was in prison and ye came unto me.”) Unfortunately when he made his famous statement that he would not turn his back on Alger Hiss, he merely gave a citation to the verse from St. Matthew, leaving the reporters to look it up.

Such mad optimism undid him. He went at once to the President to offer his resignation, realizing that no secretary of state should have spoken in the provocative way that he did. But Truman to his great credit, as one who had attended the funeral of his old political boss Tom Pendergast, convicted of bribery and tax evasion, told him that he knew how Acheson felt. In fact, as Chace comments, Acheson did not know Alger Hiss well, though Hiss’s brother Donald had been his law partner and this would have been important to him. But from the tale as told by Chace it was as if some obsession had gripped him so that he resolved not merely to show loyalty to a man who was being reviled but contempt for the anti-Communist hysteria by shocking conventional morality—and Endicott Peabody.

By the time the Democratic Party again came to power Acheson was an elder statesman and unlikely to hold office. But he was not unemployable. Kennedy consulted him before the Bay of Pigs operation. Acheson told him he was appalled and Kennedy was irritated when Acheson talked contemptuously about it after the operation failed. Nevertheless, Kennedy consulted him again over the Cuban missile crisis. Acheson derided the military’s proposal to invade the island but advised an air strike against the missile bases. Robert Kennedy opposed him and the President sided with his brother. It seems that Chace did not see the recently released Kennedy tapes, which show how masterly Kennedy was in seeking more advice, listening to more voices, and delaying a decision; he preferred to see how the affair could be negotiated. Acheson disapproved. It went counter to the Marshall dictum.

Kennedy fought the problem, didn’t decide, and won—which shows that there are no absolute rules in diplomacy. Kennedy sent Acheson to London and Paris with the photographs of the missile sites to keep his allies informed, and when Khrushchev threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany and expel the allies from Berlin, Acheson gave excellent advice: sit tight and stand on your postwar rights. Acheson congratulated Kennedy on the cool nerve that brought him success in Cuba, but he was amazed that Khrushchev had backed down.

In July 1965 he was again a hawk, joining with other pundits in supporting Lyndon Johnson’s dispatch of more troops to Vietnam. In November 1967 he spoke first in a prestigious gathering after General Wheeler’s briefing. “This is a matter we can and will win.” But his old friend Averill Harriman told him he was wrong. Vietnam was not like Korea. It was a guerrilla war. Three months later came the Tet offensive. After one meeting at which he listened with growing fury to President Johnson, full of self-pity, maundering on, and blaming his advisers for the disaster, Acheson walked out. When Walt Rostow phoned, begging him to return, he sent the President an insulting reply. Johnson called him in again and asked him to conduct his own private inquiry with permission to question officials and scrutinize documents.

He met Johnson again on March 14, 1968. The President was once more ebullient. Westmoreland had told him he could make do with only 80,000 more troops. But Acheson’s researches had paid off. He no longer believed the military. No doubt he should have remembered earlier how the military had let him and Truman down by truckling to MacArthur. General Wheeler said that the US troops were not in Vietnam to achieve victory, only to help the South Vietnamese army. Acheson exploded. “Then what in the name of God are five hundred thousand men out there doing—chasing girls? This is not a semantic game, General….” He told Johnson to wind up the war. Johnson did not call for his advice again.

He also admitted he had earlier been wrong, and in the years after he held office he often was wrong again but the responsibility was not his. It was as if he was determined to prove that he was not soft on communism. To have persuaded his country to contain communism and then to be smeared as a Communist was for him intolerable. In the opinion of his wife, the attacks on him during the McCarthy years shortened his life, but his friends, however, were amazed that after a day of vilification he was as resilient as ever after a couple of martinis. He took his mind off his troubles by retiring to his carpenter’s bench and making furniture.

The world he had “created” was changing. His dislike of messy situations and instability, his hope of orderly transfer of power by the colonial powers to indigenous populations such as Britain and France achieved in Africa, made him unsympathetic to subject peoples who were not prepared to wait for the old colonialists to bow out in pageants of lowering and raising flags. He supported the French in Indochina and learned nothing from their defeat; later he told Kennedy not to jeopardize American bases in the Azores by supporting the insurgents in Angola against Salazar.

To him the transfer of power in Africa spelled chaos. In some countries he was proved right and the new governments were tribal tyrannies under a kleptocracy. He did not accept that self-government is always preferable to good government. On one issue he had not seen eye-to-eye with Truman. He was not a Zionist—though he loyally followed Truman’s line. To most US and European diplomats the establishment of Israel was an affront to their trade. It would create a permanent zone of irreconcilable conflict, antagonize oil-producing countries, and offer Soviet Russia a new playground. But to millions of Americans, appalled by the unfolding story of the Holocaust, such reflections were irrelevant; and to this was added the shame that European countries felt. Ernest Bevin and the British establishment might disagree; but the sense of international outrage they encountered when the British turned away ships carrying Jewish refugees away from Palestine became so intense that they gave up the expensive and thankless mandate for that country and left another power vacuum for America to fill. Acheson’s view revealed a weakness in his understanding of the world of power, of emotion in politics, and of forces beyond negotiation.

When Raymond Aron as a young man was asked by an official at the Quai d’Orsay in 1932 how France should regard Hitler, he delivered a brilliant analysis in the pure style of a graduate of the Ecole Normale. The undersecretary then asked him what he would do if he were in the minister’s place. That was not a question a Normalien would deign to answer. But it taught Aron that it is conceited to deliver moral lectures to politicians unless they can be translated into political action. The recent exchange in these pages between Henry Kissinger and his critics (in which Tony Judt mentioned Aron’s view) 3 illustrates the irritation that statesmen experience when they are told that they failed to foresee the future, and the consequences of their decisions. Only the most die-hard utilitarian these days believes he can make even a faintly accurate calculation about the positively beneficial consequences of his decisions. All a statesman should hope for is that his policy will not diminish human happiness. But unless a statesman feels some sense of revulsion when he has to choose to commit a necessary evil—since politics so often consists of choosing between lesser and greater evils—he is far more likely to commit evil when it is not necessary. By that test Acheson scores high marks in Europe and though less successful in Asia, he at least saw in the end that the American army should quit Vietnam.

This is a political biography of Acheson. His remarkable wife, Alice, hardly features in it. She deserves to be mentioned not least for her sang-froid in Vienna where at a banquet in a gown whose wide skirt was held out by a crinoline petticoat, the petticoat collapsed: she kicked it under the table and emerged a slim Directoire beauty. Acheson had been unorthodox even in his wedding during the First World War. His sister had brought her roommate home from college. “I fell in love at once with her dark bun and her dreamy Impressionist beauty,” he once told me. His sister was his best man. Those who want reminiscences must turn to his autobiography to learn of the innumerable excruciating diplomatic functions he appears to have enjoyed or at least endured, including the funeral of George VI, which demanded the stamina of an Olympic champion on the three-hour march through London. But Chace does justice to the man himself—the character of that elegant, courageous, prickly, humorous, sociable man never disappears.

There was, however, one institution dear to him that understandably receives little space. Acheson reveled in being a member of the Yale Corporation. “L’université, c’est nous,” he boasted in a Louis Quatorze mood. The Corporation’s most important role was to choose the right man to be president of Yale. Regretting his happy but idle days there, he wanted also to improve Yale’s intellectual standing. Great was his glee when he and his friend Wilmarth Lewis (the Horace Walpole collector) outwitted Senator Taft by having Lewis propose Robert Hutchins as the next president. This so outraged Taft that he agreed to vote for the two plotters’ real candidate, Whitney Griswold; and Griswold responded by cutting down the numbers of alumni offspring. Acheson also arranged for a Jew, the once-rejected Harry Shulman, to be appointed dean of the law school.

When Kingman Brewster was to be installed as president, Acheson, with whom I was then staying, insisted that I should represent Cambridge University. He warned me that there would be songs, perhaps somewhat sentimental, and asked if I had a handkerchief—but it must be white. Sure enough the singing began. “Bright college years, with pleasure rife,/The shortest gladdest years of life…”

Oh let us strive that ever we
May let these words our watch-cry be,
Where’er upon life’s sea we sail
“For God, for country and for Yale.”

Out came the white pocket handkerchiefs, and the company waved them. I glanced at Acheson. Upon his face there was no hint of embarrassment or self-deprecation. He was debonair, collected, loyal. Those simple words—they were what he believed and lived by.

  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.

  3. 3

    The New York Review, September 24, 1998.