Dean Acheson
Dean Acheson; drawing by David Levine

“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.”

—Walter Lippmann

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:

When we received the text of the President’s message, we were some-what startled to see the extent to which the anti-communist element of this speech was stressed. Marshall sent back a message to President Truman questioning the wisdom of this presentation, saying he thought that Truman was overstating the case a bit. The reply came back that from all his contacts with the Senate, it was clear that this was the only way in which the measure could be passed.

In assessing the Truman Doctrine it is important to remember that in the spring of 1947 the discord between Russia and the West had not yet hardened into the confrontation of the Cold War. The division of Europe was not yet completed, and at the time many believed that the Truman Doctrine was hastening it. Walter Lippmann asked whether the President had laid down a policy or was launching a crusade, and scored what he called “big hot generalities.” What particularly troubled him was the sentence, which later came to be considered the key part of the Doctrine, in which Truman declared:

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

In this seemingly innocuous sentence Lippmann saw what others later discovered: a formula for the repression of revolutionary movements. Gradually the American people became convinced, above all by the propaganda of their own government, that they were involved in a life-or-death struggle with an ideology. Communism, whatever its form, became equated with a threat to America’s survival.

The fault lies with the Cold War liberals such as Acheson. They treated the American people cynically, thinking they could be manipulated, giving them injections of anti-communism in order to get through military appropriations they felt inadequate to explain otherwise. Acheson is not the only offender, but he is among the worst, for he was intelligent enough to know what he was doing. With a distaste for public opinion bordering on contempt, he did not tell the truth to Congress and he did not tell the truth to the people. The wave of anti-communism Acheson helped to unleash proved far too powerful for him to handle, especially after McCarthy appeared on the scene. It paralyzed him as Secretary of State, discredited the office he held, justly drove the Democrats from office, and made it virtually impossible for the nation to follow a rational foreign policy. Treat the people with contempt, and you will be treated contemptuously in return. That is the lesson of Dean Acheson’s presence at the creation, and the greater misfortune is that we have all been paying for it ever since.

In selling the Truman Doctrine to a skeptical Congress, Acheson laid down the basic tenets of American post-war foreign policy: the ideological division of the world, the equation of “freedom” with American strategic and political interests, the belief that every outpost of the empire (the “free world”), however unimportant it might be in itself, must be prevented from falling under communist control lest the entire structure be threatened (collective security). These were Acheson’s justifications for Korea, as they are for Vietnam.

As part of his program, as he phrases it, to “shock the country…into facing a growing crisis,” Acheson followed up the Truman Doctrine with a speech in Mississippi on May 8, 1947, in which he laid down the outlines of what became the Marshall Plan. While he refrains from taking full credit for the European Recovery Program, granting the official parenthood to General Marshall, he describes his speech as a “reveille” which awakened the American people to the “duties of that day of decision.” In his pride over one of the more constructive aspects of American post-war foreign policy, he neglects to point out that a strong public warning was first sounded by Walter Lippmann as early as March 13, expanded on April 5 in a column reporting that Europe was on the brink of collapse, and detailed on May 1 when he discussed the means by which an American-aided European recovery program could be carried out.

The Marshall Plan is, of course, considered an unprovocative act of enlightened self-interest that saved Western Europe from falling into the communist orbit. But at the time many Europeans, despite the economic crisis they were facing, feared American assistance presented in a form that might antagonize Moscow. As Louis Halle has observed, 4 “When the offer of rescue came at last, in the form of the Marshall Plan, it undoubtedly did contribute to the final fall of Czechoslovakia and its incorporation in the Russian empire.” To Stalin’s mind the Marshall Plan, coming hot on the heels of the Truman Doctrine, was a design for an anti-communist Western Europe backed up by American military power. This, one recalls, was at a moment when the United States still had an atomic monopoly, and when certain high officials in the government were calling for a “preventive” nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. We cannot know what effect a different American posture would have had on Stalin’s plans. But from the record available to us it seems clear that the hardening American attitude reinforced traditional Russian fears of isolation by hostile forces and led the Kremlin to tighten its grip on the territories already under its control. The Russians rejected Washington’s call to cooperate in the European Recovery Program and forbade their satellites from participating—just as Washington expected they would. As Charles Bohlen further notes in Transformation:

Kennan and I…said we were convinced that the Soviet Union could not accept the plan if it retained its original form, because the basis of self-help and the fact that the United States was to have a voice with the receiving country as to how the aid was used would make it quite impossible for the Soviet Union to accept…

Russia’s rejection was greeted with relief in Washington and saved the Marshall Plan from almost certain Congressional dismemberment. The breach was widened.

The division of Europe was sealed in the winter of 1948 by the coup in Czechoslovakia and the blockade of Berlin. Today it is assumed that the blockade was an unprovoked act of Soviet aggression to push the Western allies out of Berlin. But it was not that clear-cut. In retrospect, the Russian aim was to prevent the United States, together with Britain and France, from establishing an independent, anti-communist West German state. Nothing that happened during this or any other period can excuse the ruthlessness with which Soviet puppet regimes treated the peoples of Eastern Europe and East Germany. For the most part, however, Russia’s diplomatic moves were made in response to Western initiatives, as the sequence of events reveals: In May 1947 the US and Britain fused their occupation zones into an economic union. The next month General Marshall proposed the European Recovery Program in his speech at Harvard, and a month later Washington announced that the German economy was to be self-sustaining. In August the Germans were allowed to increase production to the 1936 level, and at this point the French agreed to fuse their zone with the other two. “By November,” Acheson reports, “the three allies were able to present a solid front to the Russians.”

The inability of the Western allies to work together with Russia in governing Germany led to discussions in London in February and March 1948 toward the creation of an independent German state in the Western zones: the so-called “London Program.” That same February the Russians gave the goahead for the coup in Czechoslovakia, and, upon the allies’ signing the Brussels Defense Pact, walked out of the Allied Control Council in Berlin. The US, Britain, and France proceeded with the integration of their zones, and in June announced they would proceed to form a West German government with “the minimum requirements of occupation and control.” As a first step they set up a separate currency for West Germany.

This, in Acheson’s words, “triggered the final break with the Soviet Union in Germany.” Five days after the announcement of the Western currency reform, the Russians set up their own currency system for East Germany and all Berlin. The Allies responded by extending the West German currency reform to Berlin (still under four-power control). The next day the Russians imposed a full blockade on Berlin.

For Acheson, this sequence of events, culminating in a separate West German state, was a triumph of US diplomacy. But it solidified the division of Europe. Was it entirely the fault of the Russians, or was Moscow reacting defensively? According to George Kennan, chief of the policy planning staff of the State Department at the time,

There can be no doubt that, coming as it did on top of the European recovery program and the final elaboration and acceptance of the Atlantic alliance, the move toward establishment of a separate government in Western Germany aroused keen alarm among the Soviet leaders. It was no less than natural that they should do all in their power to frustrate this undertaking and to bring the three Western powers back to the negotiating table in order that Russia might continue to have a voice in all-German affairs.

Kennan feared that the “London Program,” providing for a separate West German state, would induce the Russians to set up a rival government in the East, and “the fight would be on for fair; the division of Germany, and with it the division of Europe itself, would tend to congeal.” Instead of a separate arrangement for Berlin, he favored a settlement for Germany as a whole involving the withdrawal of Russian troops. In November 1948 the Planning Staff presented a package entitled “Plan A,” which provided for a new provisional German government under international supervision, withdrawal of allied forces to garrisons on the periphery of Germany, and complete demilitarization of the country. Kennan says the plan was never seriously considered. “Mr. Acheson, if I read his mind correctly in retrospect, regarded it as no more than a curious…aberration,” while “the London Program…was being rushed frantically to completion with the scarcely concealed intention that it should stand as a fait accompli before the Big Four foreign ministers.”

Acheson’s formula for German reunification, expressed at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Paris in May 1949, was “to extend the Bonn constitution to the whole country.” This would, of course, not only have eliminated the pro-Soviet regime in the eastern zone, but have brought a unified Germany into the Western camp. As Acheson was no doubt aware, this possibility was anathema not only to the Russians but to the East (and even West) Europeans who had twice been invaded by Germany in this century and were opposed to reunification under any conditions.

Of course Acheson did not seriously expect the Russians to accept. He wanted to anchor West Germany firmly to NATO and feared that unification through neutrality would lead to European neutrality, if not communization. In his eyes there was nothing to negotiate, other than a Russian withdrawal from Eastern Europe—for which he was willing to give up nothing in return. He believed the United States must stand firm every-where the status quo was tested, such as Berlin, and later in such places as Korea and Vietnam, lest the Soviets be tempted to make even greater incursions elsewhere.

Like his followers Rusk and Rostow, Acheson saw every situation as a global confrontation. There were no local contests, but only localized testing of America’s will to resist Soviet (or Chinese, or simply “communist”) aggression. As part of his policy of creating situations of strength, Acheson was engaged in a race against time to build up German and European military power before the participants lost interest, “to achieve the European Defense Community and end the occupation in Germany before ebb tide in Europe and America lowered the level of will too far.”

A momentary threat to these plans came in March 1952 when Stalin sought four-power talks on a German peace treaty. Stalin’s proposal differed from previous ones in calling for a reunified Germany free of foreign troops, neutralized, demilitarized, and with the boundaries agreed upon at Potsdam. Acheson surmised, quite correctly, that this was designed to prevent the further integration of Germany into the West. It was, in his words, “a spoiling operation.” Rather than a unified neutral Germany, Acheson, like Adenauer, wanted a divided Germany with the strongest segment linked to the West. If Stalin were really serious, German unification would have meant abandoning NATO. The price was too high.

Although he knew better, Acheson persisted in equating communism with Soviet imperialism even in cases where it obviously did not apply.5 This helped him to squeeze foreign and military aid out of a recalcitrant Congress and to justify policies which might otherwise have seemed unjustifiable. “Of course we opposed the spread of communism,” he writes of US policy in Asia with the marvelous assurance of one whose hypocrisy has moved on to the higher plane of self-congratulation, “it was the subtle, powerful instrument of Russian imperialism, designed and used to defeat the very interests we shared with the Asian peoples, the interest in their own autonomous development uncontrolled from abroad.”

To show our concern for the interests of the Asians, Acheson in May 1950 called for American military and economic aid to France to help put down Ho Chi Minh’s independence movement. This was justified under the catch-all strategy of blocking Soviet imperialism. “The United States government,” the official State Department document declared,

convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution can exist in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism, considers the situation to be such as to warrant its according economic aid and military equipment to the Associated States of Indochina and to France in order to assist them in restoring stability and permitting these states to pursue their peaceful and democratic development.

Helping French colonialism caused him no moral pain, although he continually griped about the stubbornness of the French in wanting to run their colony themselves rather than turn it over to American “advisers.” His sympathies naturally seem to lie with the colonizers rather than with those being colonized.6 By the time Acheson left office, the United States was paying nearly half of France’s military bill in Indochina. “I could not then or later,” he explains of this policy, “think of a better course.” After all that has happened there since, he still cannot.7

The inability to think of a better course is the dominant motif of Acheson’s letter of transmittal accompanying the China White Paper, a thousand-page document released in the summer of 1949 defending US policy toward China. Trying to explain the victory of the communists despite more than $2 billion in American aid to Chiang Kai-shek, Acheson said, in effect, that what happened had to happen because it could not have been otherwise.

The unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States. Nothing that this country did or could have done within the reasonable limits of its capabilities could have changed that result; nothing that was left undone by this country has contributed to it. It was the product of internal Chinese forces, forces which this country tried to influence but could not.

Although designed to answer right-wing charges that the administration had allowed Chiang to be defeated, the White Paper failed to satisfy even those who had little sympathy for Chiang. Acheson’s statement, Walter Lippmann pointed out at the time, was “tantamount to saying that there was no such thing as a sound or unsound, a right or a wrong, a wise or an unwise policy toward the Chinese civil war.” What is crucial is not why Chiang lost, but why the United States persisted in supporting him to the bitter end, long after it became apparent that he could not possibly have won without American intervention. But Acheson evades this question both in his letter of transmittal at the time, and in his current account of the incident.

The heart of the White Paper concerned the long suppressed report by General Wedemeyer which concluded that the Nationalist government, described as “corrupt, reactionary and inefficient,” could not win unless the United States took over not only the running of the war, but the government itself. He advised that Manchuria, then under communist control, be abandoned to a five-power guardianship, and that the Chiang regime submit to American “advisers” who would put together and run a new government. Unlike General Stilwell who also reported that Chiang could not withstand the communists, Wedemeyer thought the United States should intervene. To his credit and our good fortune, Marshall rejected Wedemeyer’s recommendation. But while the administration refused to take over Chiang’s government and fight his war, neither could it bring itself to abandon him to his fate. “Chiang’s defeat, which we could not prevent, from which we could not disentangle ourselves,” as Lippmann wrote at the time, “became an American defeat.”

Having failed to cut itself loose from Chiang, the Administration soon found itself involved in a war on China’s borders. When North Korean troops streamed across the 38th parallel on June 24, 1950, Acheson immediately blamed the Russians and considered it another “testing” of American will. “It seemed close to certain that the attack had been mounted, supplied and instigated by the Soviet Union,” he relates, “and that it would not be stopped by anything short of force.” Truman saw it as the potential opening shot of World War III. “Every decision made in connection with the Korean war,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “had this one aim in mind: To prevent a third world war and the terrible destruction it would bring to the civilized world.” Acheson apparently never considered the possibility that the causes of the war might have been based to a large extent on local factors—on the weakness of Rhee’s repressive government, his threats to march on the north, the belief of the North Koreans that they could unify the country easily.8 For Acheson the attack was “an open, undistinguished challenge to our internationally accepted position as the protector of South Korea.”

To back away from this challenge, in view of our capacity for meeting it, would be highly destructive of the power and prestige of the United States. By prestige I mean the shadow cast by power,9 which is of great deterrent importance. Therefore, we could not accept the conquest of this important area by a Soviet puppet under the very guns of our defensive perimeter with no more resistance than words and gestures in the Security Council.

Although Acheson considered American prestige to be involved, prior to the invasion there was no commitment to the defense of Korea. Indeed it had been explicitly omitted from the US defense perimeter by Acheson himself and by the Pentagon. In a recently published book10 General J. Lawton Collins, Army chief of staff during the Korean war, reminds us that in April 1948 President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a policy stating: “The United States should not become so irrevocably involved in the Korean situation that an action taken by any faction in Korea or by any other power in Korea could be considered a “casus belli” for the United States. The JCS felt that, in the context of a general war, Korea was indefensible and “of little strategic value to the United States.” They recommended a complete withdrawal of American troops, which was done by the end of June 1949. They optimistically assumed that the South Koreans could “check and delay any attack by the North Koreans long enough to allow pressure from the United Nations to force a halt.” The peripheral value the administration placed on Korea was confirmed by Acheson on January 12, 1950, in a speech drawing a US defense perimeter that “runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus…from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands.” Both Korea and Formosa were excluded from this perimeter.

The attack was immediately treated as a major provocation of the United States itself, even though the evidence indicates that was not necessarily the intention of the North Koreans or their Russian advisers.11 Naval and Air forces were ordered to support the South Koreans. In addition the President, in a move that has had lasting repercussions, interposed the Seventh Fleet between Formosa and the Chinese mainland. The island had now become strategically important as a base to be kept out of “communist” hands and as a symbol of prestige. Having decided to defend Korea, which it never expected to be attacked, the administration could not afford to lose Formosa, which it had virtually written off to Mao. Thus by a face-saving logic that distorted the real issues, the Administration involved the United States directly in the Chinese civil war and became the enemy of the new government in Peking.

Immediately the issue was expanded from the defense of a client state to a struggle against ubiquitous “international communism.” “The attack upon Korea,” Truman declared in his message to Congress, “makes it plain beyond all doubt that communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war.” Of course it proved no such thing. At the most it showed that an imbalance of forces in a divided nation and the absence of a formal guarantee from a powerful protector invite civil war. However, the administration did not choose to interpret it that way. Otherwise it could never have won the popular support it needed to fight the war.

Truman’s decision to intervene was an executive action. He did not seek Congressional authorization, which Acheson considered a waste of time, nor did he want to run the risk of rejection, or any troublesome debates. Although it is no doubt true that once the issue was defined as a struggle against international communism, Congress no doubt would have given him whatever he asked for, just as it wrote Johnson a blank check in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

While the invasion caught Washington flat-footed, the immediate assumption was that it was a prelude to a possible Russian move against Western Europe. The last thing that occurred to anyone at the time was that even if the Russians gave their blessing to the North Korean attack, it might have had nothing to do with Soviet ambitions in Europe but rather was a response to US policy in Asia: specifically to the decision to shut Russia out of the proposed treaty with Japan. One of the few who believed this was George Kennan, who told Acheson that the US determination to sign a separate peace with Japan and retain military bases on Japanese soil probably had an important bearing on the attack on South Korea. “But,” he notes in his memoirs, “official Washington appeared, particularly at that time, impervious to any understanding of the possible effects of its own acts and policies on Soviet behavior beyond the rather primitive question as to whether what we did deterred or did not deter the Soviet government from its assumed desire to launch military attacks in every direction.”12

Once the decision was made to intervene in Korea, the political goals escalated rapidly. In June our stated purpose was to repel the invasion; by August it was to destroy the North Korean army; and by September to unify all of Korea. In June there was hesitation about sending planes across the 38th parallel; by August the administration was ready to send US ground troops. With the success of MacArthur’s armies, what had begun as a defensive war to defend South Korea was transformed into an offensive war to unite all of Korea and destroy the communist regime in the North.

After the North Koreans were turned back by MacArthur’s brilliant landing at Inchon, the next decision was whether to penetrate beyond the 38th parallel. Despite opposition from within the State Department by Kennan and others, the Administration was intoxicated by the brilliant possibilities then opening up: the destruction of the North Korean army and the unification of the country. On September 27 MacArthur was given new instructions: to cross the parallel and destroy the North Korean army, provided that Soviet or Chinese troops did not enter the war or threaten to do so. General Marshall, then Secretary of Defense, even sent MacArthur a telegram saying, “We want you to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th parallel.” The Administration submitted a new resolution to the UN, which dutifully approved it on October 7, calling for a “unified, independent and democratic government of Korea,” though the resolution did not explicitly authorize crossing the parallel.

As allied troops approached the parallel, China voiced increasing concern. In mid-September Peking declared that it would stand by the Korean people and criticized the US for supporting Chiang and blocking China’s admission to the UN. On September 30 foreign minister Chou En-lai stated that the Chinese would not “supinely tolerate seeing their neighbors savagely invaded by the imperialists,” and would not stand aside if the parallel were crossed. On October 1 South Korean troops moved across the parallel and MacArthur demanded the unconditional surrender of North Korea. Chou informed the Indian ambassador that if American troops followed across the parallel, China would enter the war. The message was relayed to Washington on October 3, but scornfully dismissed by Acheson.13 His weakness for the use of force outweighed his political judgment. Chou’s warning was ignored, the Indian diplomat was written off as an alarmist and communist sympathizer, and US troops surged across the parallel.14

MacArthur pushed north and on October 24 swept past the restraining line beyond which only South Korean troops were supposedly to be used. Two days later a Korean unit along the Yalu encountered Chinese troops, and for four days engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. Suddenly the Chinese withdrew. Were they protecting their dams and electric plants across the Yalu? Were they giving the US a signal that they would intervene in full force if American troops pushed to the Yalu? Acheson expressed his “bafflement” about their intentions. The stillness was shattered on November 5 when MacArthur received permission to bomb bridges and installations along the Yalu. The war was now on China’s border. Four days later a strong Chinese attack broke out all along the line and the allies were driven back with heavy casualties. “We face an entirely new war,” MacArthur informed Washington.

From Acheson’s account, flavored with such phrases as MacArthur’s “manic tide,” and “his own hubris,” one would think that he violated clear policy lines laid down by Washington. In fact, MacArthur’s instructions were deliberately left vague and he was allowed considerable latitude. To be sure, he used all the authority he had, but he did not—at least until the Chinese intervention—contravene Washington’s instructions. It was the National Security Council, with Acheson’s and Truman’s approval, which permitted him to advance to the Yalu, with instructions to use his discretion. Having abdicated its authority, the Administration was hardly in a position to complain when MacArthur’s judgment proved faulty. Although everyone feared the Chinese might enter the war, no one had the courage to stop MacArthur’s advance before it happened. Acheson passed the buck to the Pentagon, the JCS said it was up to the President to decide, and Truman—in the absence of strong support from his advisers—was too intimidated by MacArthur to change his orders.

The march to the Yalu was a disaster, but it followed from the earlier decision to move north across the 38th parallel and destroy the North Korean regime. The responsibility for that decision rests with Acheson, Marshall, and Truman.

Acheson now even admits, “what lost the confidence of our allies were MacArthur’s costly defeat, his open advocacy of widening the war at what they rightly regarded as unacceptable risks, and the hesitance of the Administration in asserting firm control over him.” He further makes the oblique confession that “this loss of confidence at home and abroad in the conduct of our foreign policy was not the proximate cause of any change in our foreign policy, but it added to our difficulties and by so doing diminished our effectiveness.”

After the Chinese prevented the unification of Korea by force, MacArthur’s armies were pushed back below the 38th parallel, the General was dismissed by Truman, and armistice talks dragged on interminably, with continuing casualties on both sides, until the Democrats were finally sent out to pasture by the disgusted voters, and Eisenhower entered with a pledge to “go to Korea.” Acheson describes his final two years in office in chapters with such dispiriting titles as, “NATO in Stagnation,” “NATO Meets in Rome,” “Death of a King,” and finally, none too soon, “Last Farewells.” By the time they come, the reader is as weary as Acheson himself must have been after four years as Secretary of State.

But he obviously loved every minute of it. Those who congratulate themselves on the sacrifices they make in “public service” are pulling the public’s leg. As one always suspected, it is no sacrifice for those doing the “serving,” since it gives them positions of power, not to mention ego-gratification, they could never have in their law firms, executive suites, and university offices. They don’t even mind selling their stocks.15 It is not that they love money less, but that they love power more. As Acheson comments on his enforced return to private life in January 1953 when the Republicans took over: “To leave positions of great responsibility and authority is to die a little.”

As it turned out, Acheson didn’t die very much. After the bucolic Eisenhower years when, for a change, the United States was not involved in any wars, Acheson returned to the White House as a sometime adviser to Presidents, with such pieces of advice as telling Kennedy to bomb the Russian missile sites in Cuba and assuring Johnson that he was defending the Free World in Vietnam. Even Nixon, once the bane of his existence, has invited him to the White House. Now savoring the role of elder statesman, Acheson is neither gone nor forgotten. His influence lives on and the heritage of his years in office is still very much with us.

In the pages of this long memoir lie the intellectual justification for the Cold War, the enormous expansion of American military power, and the ignoble interventions that have been carried out with the most noble rhetoric. The world Acheson helped to create is the world we still live in. Although his book tells us what it was like to be “present at the creation” of the post-war world, as we enter the 1970s his pride in that role seems strangely misplaced.

This Issue

February 12, 1970