AchesonThe Secretary of State Who
Created the American World
by James Chace
(Simon & Schuster)
At one point during his testimony Acheson simply stared at a congressman in irritated disbelief and snapped, "If you didn't talk so much and listened more, I think you would understand better what this is all about."
It's enough to make a grown man cry --- this time in our nation's history where a handful of careful, thoughtful people could make worthy foreign policy --- and make it stick. With his vest and cane and striped pants, Dean Acheson looked to be a parody of everyman's vision of the State Department stickler --- a man who, in Salinger's famous phrase, looked like "he had a poker stuck up his ass." He had gone to Groton, then to Yale --- and hung out with the rich, had that sense of noblesse oblige that he was to do something for his country and the world.
He started in the Treasury Department during the early New Deal --- but left during a contretemps over FDR's daily, zany interventions in the gold market. Several years later, he returned to State, and ended up as Secretary of State for most of Harry Truman's presidency.
This meant that along with George F. Kennan he was one of the fathers of our policy of "containment" --- figuring out where the Soviets would next probe the weaknesses of the west, be it Greece, Turkey, Berlin, or (with the Chinese Communists) Korea, Viet-Nam, and Taiwan. He was indefatigable, everywhere at once, giving speeches, testifying before Congress, issuing thoughtful papers (his "white paper" on the question of the Chinese Communists vs. the Nationalists came to over 1,000 pages of close reasoning), meeting with the likes of Earnest Bevan, George C. Marshall, Konrad Adenauer, Arthur Vandenburg (of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), Winston Churchill, Justice Felix Frankfurter (a close friend) --- not to speak of regular meetings with Truman, along with staff sessions at Foggy Bottom.
What emerges is a picture of a man with tremendous energy, tremendous integrity, and a tremendous belief in not only his own ability, but the truth and rightness of American foreign policy, the one that he and Marshall and Truman and Kennan forged. One may not agree with all of his stances, but one has to respect not only him and his President, but the times as well: when a few people of integrity --- even while being sniped at by the troglodytes like Pat McCarran, Francis Walter and Joe McCarthy --- were able to bring off a coherent policy of containment with, at the same time, an openness to change.
He made mistakes --- his statement that he would never "turn his back" on Alger Hiss was to open the door for the superpatriots to undermine him; and his support of France in Viet-Nam --- he saw it as a reluctant trade-off for getting them to join what was to become the Common Market --- was to prove to be the gift that kept on giving.
But his heart and soul seems, to this reader, to have been in the right place at the right time, and Acheson is great reading, especially to those of us who could barely comprehend the world at that time. Words and phrases such as "Marshall Plan," "China Lobby," "Coal and Steel Community," "the 38th Parallel," "Hydrogen Bomb," "HUAC," "Iran crisis," have been imprinted in our memory banks, and with Chace's uniformly clear explications, these phrases come to life, take on a rich meaning. Acheson was a man who originally turned down the opportunity to be Secretary of State because he felt he wasn't "adequate to the task at such a critical time in America's history." After hearing that, President Truman replied:
Dean, I suppose there are 10,000 people in the United States who are better qualified to be President or Secretary of State than I am or you are. The only difficulty is that we don't know who they are. The fact of the matter is that I have been elected President, and I am President, and I want you to be Secretary of State.
This is a weighty book, as proved by the fact that I dropped the goddamned thing on my foot one night as I was getting into bed. My little toe turned fat and purple, but it gave me an excuse to stay in bed for a couple of days and finish it off (the book, not the toe). As one of the seductees of Jacques Casanova said to him the next morning, "The pain was nothing in comparison with the pleasure."--- L W Milam