When French civil servants retire, they are often awarded major jobs in government-owned banks and industrial companies, but they almost never return to public life. Retiring political leaders in Britain may remain in the House of Commons as members of the loyal opposition or be given a seat in the House of Lords. Although a few may find work in the City or in British industry, they rarely move back to important jobs in government.

Dean Acheson took full advantage of the almost uniquely American practice that permits gifted and ambitious people to move freely between the public and private sectors. At the end of each of his three tours in government service, the last as Truman’s secretary of state between 1949 and 1953, he returned to his law practice; but as a private citizen he still undertook special government assignments and provided formal or informal advice to the administration in power. These activities are the subject of Douglas Brinkley’s interesting book.

Still, as Brinkley observes, Acheson, on leaving the State Department in 1953, could not take advantage of the flexibility of the American system until he had spent eight years in the political wilderness. His resignation as secretary of state did not immediately purge him of the stigma of calumny, for he had offended vocal elements of the American public, and particularly Senator Joe McCarthy and his allies. Not only was he incapable of suffering fools gladly—a trait that gave him intense pride despite its high cost—but, during the most squalid moments of the McCarthy madness, he had refused to conceal his scorn for the unctuous expressions of anti-Communist outrage that became common at the time. The State Department officials set up a loyalty program and purged those who were less than enthralled by the Chiang Kai-shek regime in China (which meant virtually everyone with first-hand experience in dealing with it), but Acheson declined to be swept away in the general madness.

His behavior invited particular notoriety when, after Alger Hiss was found guilty, he failed to act as Dickens’s righteous knitting women did in calling for the guillotine. Instead he deliberately proclaimed: “I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss.” Acheson did not take that stand because he was fond of Alger Hiss; on the contrary, as many of us knew, he regarded Hiss as stuffy and rigid. Nor could he ever forgive him the venal sin of lacking a sense of humor. He refused to join the howling mob primarily because he was appalled by the tawdry antics of opportunists (including some of his old friends) who were competing to prove their loyalty (primarily to themselves) by noisily condemning Hiss.

For this idiosyncratic reaction Acheson paid a bitter price. Throughout our period of national insanity, no administration could be publicly associated with such a well-known dissenter without inviting censure.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Aware that the plan had no future unless approved by our embassy in Saigon, I sent one of my personal assistants, Thomas Ehrlich, to Saigon to prepare the way, hoping that he could sell the plan to General Maxwell Taylor who was then our ambassador there. But promptly on arrival Ehrlich learned that General Taylor would have no part of a plan which was, he said, “a giveaway program of the worst sort.” Taylor did, however, instruct his deputy, Alex Johnson, to send me a telegram containing a detailed list of objections, which I conscientiously answered but without success.

The reaction of our embassy in Saigon confirmed my opinion, as I later wrote in my memoirs, that our government had become the “prisoner of whatever Saigon military clique was momentarily in power.”

Although in the end the episode came to nothing, it suggested something of Acheson’s attitude toward the war. He still believed that it could be won by the commitment of sufficient forces to Vietnam. Yet, even so, he was willing to give diplomacy a try so long as it did not involve negotiating with the North Vietnamese government. In his view, a negotiation with the Hanoi government could produce useful results only after we had convinced its leaders that their forces could not win the war and that their side would suffer badly by continuing it.

Whatever ambiguity the episode implied about Acheson’s private views was soon cleared up in a meeting the following month of the so-called “Wise Men” (or what I privately thought might be better referred to as “the usual suspects”). In that meeting, Acheson took the lead in trying to get his colleagues to agree on committing a far larger number of American troops to the conflict; he urged that those present at the meeting assure the President that he had no choice but to provide the men essential for “an all-out victory in Vietnam.”

The meeting was not only useless and misleading but I found it embarrassing to hear such nonsense from such intelligent people. Most of the talk concerned the need for a greater effort to convince the American people of the righteousness of the war and the need for victory. Indeed, I felt so strongly about what seemed to me a puerile discussion that, on leaving the cabinet room where the meeting was held, I found myself saying spontaneously to Acheson, John McCloy, and John Cowles, who were seated together across the table: “You old bastards are like three buzzards sitting on the fence and waiting for the young men to die. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” Acheson told me later that their reaction was to ask themselves, “What the hell was eating George?”

That was not the only occasion on which I sought Dean’s help. During the early months of 1964 I undertook to bring together the Greek and Turkish factions in Cyprus in the hope of deterring them from drifting into a bloody and disruptive war. I had gone deeply into this apparently intractable dispute, and had spent some time in the Middle East trying to find a common position among the three intransigent factions: the prime ministers of Greece and Turkey and the Greek prime minister of Cyprus.

After one particularly tiresome and unrewarding visit to Athens, Ankara, and Nicosia I again enlisted the help of Acheson, who was regarded in both Greece and Turkey as the legendary figure who had defended both countries against the Communist threat. After I discussed the problem with President Johnson, he invited both Prime Minister Papandreou of Greece and Prime Minister Inonu of Turkey to visit Washington on dates just two days apart. During their visits Acheson and I took each prime minister, in turn, on a cruise down the Potomac to Mount Vernon on the President’s yacht, the Sequoia, and in that serene setting, Dean and I pressed them hard to consider a settlement.

When it became apparent that we were making no progress on our plans, I decided that the time had come to bring Dean directly into the negotiations. I therefore suggested to the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, that the Greek and Turkish representatives be asked to meet with Acheson, who could serve as an informal mediator. As I had feared, however, U Thant resisted the proposal, since it might imply that the United States was trespassing on his territory and taking the diplomatic initiative away from the United Nations. As a compromise it was agreed that the meetings not take place in New York but in Geneva, with U Thant’s understanding that Acheson might establish himself somewhere near the site of the negotiations, to be consulted by representatives of the contesting parties whenever they wished.

Dean and Alice Acheson moved to Geneva, where she (a gifted artist) spent the summer painting while Dean conducted his official business and worked on a graceful book of reflective essays called Fragments of My Fleece. Before he left Washington, Dean and I canvassed every possible solution to the Cyprus problem including proposals for partition; for federal, confederal, and cantonal restructuring; and even for what we called “double enosis” under which Greek Cypriots would be settled in one part of the island and Turkish Cypriots in another, while each sector would come under the sovereignty of its respective metropolitan power.

Meanwhile, Acheson developed what came to be called the Acheson Plan. As I describe it in my memoirs:

It took account of the successful population transfers that had been carried out after the Greek-Turkish resettlements in the early 1920s. It called for the union of Cyprus with Greece, cession of the Greek Dodecanese island of Kastellorizon to Turkey, resettlement and compensation of the Turkish Cypriotes wishing to emigrate, the creation of two enclaves on Cyprus for Turkish Cypriotes who wished to remain, and the establishment of a Turkish military base on Cyprus. Neither side, however, accepted the scheme.

The political talks made little progress and on August 18 Acheson sent me a telex saying, in his view, the chances of obtaining a Greek-Turkish settlement were “about the same as the odds on Goldwater.” He proposed to abandon his efforts and asked for permission to come home, since there was nothing more he could usefully do. As I noted in my memoirs:

Since there was a six-hour difference between the United States and Geneva, I followed the practice with Acheson of talking to him around 2:00 AM Washington time on a scrambled teletype in the operations center at the State Department, while he sat at the other end in the consulate in Geneva. That night, after a long session of arguing over the teletype, I ended my peroration to Acheson with “Aux armes, citoyens.” If the Geneva enterprise must die, I contended, its burial should be conducted not “by an orthodox Archbishop but by this son of an Episcopal bishop,” which, of course, meant Acheson. Acheson had tried with great skill and exceptional patience to settle a problem created by the wicked and the weak.

These episodes are all competently described in Professor Brinkley’s book. He also takes note of Acheson’s strong disagreement with what he referred to as the “Dullesian approach” to the East-West struggle. He thought that Dulles’s threat of “massive retaliation” against the USSR was inherently implausible. It would, he feared, merely provoke the Soviets to make moves that would probe US intentions while creating consternation among our NATO allies, on whose territory a nuclear war might well be fought. He called Dulles’s reliance on nuclear weapons “an Orwellian attempt to persuade a country that it got stronger by getting weaker.”

Brinkley notes that to some extent the differences between Acheson and Dulles were exacerbated by differences in style and personality. Dulles, in Acheson’s view, was basically a hypocrite. While Dulles sought to impose moral standards on the rest of the world, he was, in Acheson’s view, lacking in personal integrity, willing to tolerate a purge of State Department employees that, as a lawyer, he must have known was lacking in elementary protection of due process. Brinkley suggests that the delight Acheson took in attacking Eisenhower and Dulles may well have been aggravated by the abuse he had undergone during his last years in government and particularly during the 1952 presidential campaign.

Brinkley also discusses Acheson’s emphasis on consistent support for America’s Western allies, even when they behaved as badly as they did during the Suez affair in 1956. That event led him to disagree with Dulles particularly on how to deal with France. During the discussion of the European Defense Community (EDC) in the 1950s, Dulles attempted to use pressure by promising an “agonizing reappraisal” of US policy should the EDC fail. Acheson, on the other hand, had tried to deal tactfully with France and had never engaged in issuing ultimatums.

Acheson, Brinkley observes, was instinctively inclined to view European colonialism more charitably than the circumstances warranted. This was particularly noticeable in his reaction to the French defeat in Indochina and his hostile reaction to Senator John Kennedy’s speech advocating Algerian independence. When the Kennedy administration came to power, Acheson no longer found himself with a Republican government to shoot at. Kennedy gave him serious work to do. He appointed him head of a Presidential Task Force on Berlin, and Dean gave the President advice on how to react when Khrushchev threatened a Berlin crisis.

It is, however, unnecessary to recall all the many occasions in which Acheson’s talents as a private citizen were used by American administrations. Brinkley has described many of them in his good and fundamentally well-balanced book. It is by no means a testimonial to Acheson’s transcendent qualities as an actively involved citizen, but it does show how often Acheson was capable of the flexibility which I earlier described.

What seems apparent from Professor Brinkley’s account but which he does not make explicit, is that Acheson’s mind and character had been formed in two quite different environments. From his father, a Connecticut Episcopal bishop, and at Groton and Yale, he had absorbed the values of latter-day New England Brahmanism, in which a sense of noblesse oblige concealed a residue of Social Darwinism; his active career in Washington was touched by the liberal passions of the New Deal.

Acheson’s early intellectual conditioning may help explain his sympathy for the excruciating predicament, as the Boers conceived it, of the South African government; his indifference or hostility to anticolonialism; and his skepticism of the growing fashionable enthusiasm for encouraging immediate independence for black African populations in the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, as well as in France’s African possessions. Here, once again, his respect for the European governments with which he had worked so closely may well have led him to underestimate the strength of the “winds of change.”

At the same time, his active involvement in the New Deal strongly affected his sense of the reforms needed in American society, particularly the ending of the American form of apartheid. He worked hard, for example, to help the Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, draft and guide through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which he himself characterized as “among the greatest achievements since World War II and, in the field of civil rights, the greatest since the Thirteenth Amendment.”

Still, there is no doubt that his early education played the greater role in his thinking. So it was not surprising that, though he had been law clerk to Louis Brandeis, he felt greater empathy with the more Olympian attitude of Justice Holmes, whom he constantly quoted. On balance, Holmes’s detached approach rather than Brandeis’s intense social passion played the greater role in shaping his opinions on the major political issues of the day.

This Issue

December 17, 1992