- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman's last secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, has been treated kindly by history. This in large part reflects the Eurocentric, East Coast, Atlantic orientation of the U.S. media and academic establishment.
So far as Asia is concerned, it can be argued that Acheson was a catastrophe for the United States. In 1941, as assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, he was the driving force in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration in imposing an oil and other raw materials embargo on Japan that decisively tilted Japan into attacking the United States, sinking the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor and unleashing the horrors of the entire Pacific War.
Only nine years later, as Truman's secretary of state, Acheson gave a notorious speech in which he failed to include South Korea among the East Asian states that the United States was prepared to protect against communist aggression. That speech appears to have been of crucial importance in shaping Joseph Stalin's and Mao Tse-tung's decisions to give the green light to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in 1950 to invade the South and unleash the horrors of the Korean War.
But in Europe, especially Britain, Acheson remains a revered figure to this day. That is because of his central role in shaping the Marshall Plan of aid to Western Europe that was crucial to the rapid recovery after World War II, and because of his pivotal role in shaping the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949.
The thesis of John McNay, assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati obscured rather than illuminated by his title, "Acheson and Empire" is that Acheson was not merely a great Anglophile admirer of Britain; this has always been known, and he never made any secret about it. Mr. McNay contends that the key to many of Acheson's foreign policy decisions was that he was a Protestant Ulsterman by descent, tracing his ancestry to Northern Ireland. To the best of my knowledge, this suggestion has never been made before and, as the author indeed notes, it has much to recommend it. For Acheson's personality and character as revealed in crucial, Plutarchian moments have very little of the sophisticated, tactful and subtle Englishman about them.
So far, so good. But then Mr. McNay goes off the rails. He devotes the bulk of his book to arguing that Acheson's Ulster sentiments dashed hopes for peace through establishing a united Ireland in the late 1940s. He also claims they played a crucial role in preventing the resolution of the Kashmir dispute in the Indian subcontinent that continues to this day, and also played major and disastrous roles in U.S. policies connected with Egypt and Iran in the early 1950s.
In every single one of these four cases Mr. McNay's theses are twaddle and cannot be taken seriously. In fact, the Irish and Kashmir issues were of marginal interest to Acheson at best, and the author fails to present any evidence to the contrary. Acheson saw Britain as a crucial global ally and (junior) partner to the United States in the Cold War struggle to restrain Soviet (and Chinese) communism. Tiny Ireland, with a population of only three million, had stayed neutral through World War II and had refused to join NATO. It was hardly going to receive his sympathetic treatment whether his family came from Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland, or Timbuktoo.
The argument that Acheson drove recently independent India out of the U.S. orbit by his sympathies for Britain and Pakistan over Kashmir is also silly. Acheson certainly deferred to Britain, but from his point of view this made great geopolitical sense. Even after granting full independence to India and Pakistan, Britain remained a major imperial power through the 1950s in Southeast Asia, successfully defeating a serious communist insurgency in Malaya. From 1945 to 1949, the Truman administration also relied on British forces to shore up support for the crumbling Dutch Empire in the East Indies, which became independent as Indonesia.
Mr. McNay argues that Acheson played a major role in "losing" Egypt for Britain and the West by failing to force Britain to pull out of its dominant role in Egypt and control of the Suez Canal Zone when nationalist passions were rising there, and by failing to woo and win over Egyptian nationalists. It was, rather, the failure of British governments to maintain their position in Egypt in the early 1950s, and then Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden's eagerness to hand over control of the Canal Zone to the Egyptians, that emboldened the Egyptian nationalists and led them to seize the canal. Finally, in Iran, the crucial U.S. intervention to topple an anti-British government came after Acheson had left office, to be replaced by the far tougher and more activist John Foster Dulles as secretary of state.
In conclusion, this is an initially stimulating but overwhelmingly silly little book. It is certainly provocative, and its basic idea is worth presenting. But thereafter, its interest lies in its incompetence rather than its accomplishments.

Martin Sieff is managing editor, international affairs, at United Press International.


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