- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009


By Robert J. McMahon

Potomac Books, $16.95, 256 pages, illus.

Was Dean Acheson the most vilified secretary of state in American history? In all likelihood he was. Richard Nixon spoke of Mr. Acheson’s “spineless school of diplomacy.” Joseph McCarthy called him “Russian as to heart,” a “pompous diplomat in striped pants with a phony British accent.”

The object of this abuse appeared, in fact, more European than American. He was tall and broad-shouldered, invariably well tailored, with a precisely trimmed moustache that called to mind a British banker. Aloof in manner, Mr. Acheson - in the words of one historian - “found it difficult to conceal his contempt for the contemptible.” This undiplomatic diplomat is the subject of “Dean Acheson and the Creation of an American World Order,” a concise biography by foreign affairs historian Robert J. McMahon.

The future secretary of state was born in 1893. His father was the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, his mother heir to a Canadian distilling fortune. He attended Groton School, Yale University and Harvard Law School, always graduating near the top of his class. After law school, Mr. Acheson joined the prestigious Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, but in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the State Department. As “chief lobbyist for State” - Mr. Acheson’s own term - he learned the devious workings of Congress.

In 1945, President Truman appointed Mr. Acheson undersecretary of state, and thus began a long professional and personal association with the patrician diplomat. Mr. Acheson first favored an accommodation with the Soviet Union, but by 1947, Mr. McMahon writes, he was “foursquare in the cold warrior camp.” Mr. Acheson thought the best way to contain Soviet expansionism was to assure the economic prosperity of Europe, and he was one of the architects of the aid program that came to be known as the Marshall Plan.

In 1949, Mr. Acheson succeeded Gen. George C. Marshall as secretary of state, and as such remained focused on European security. He was a driving force behind the creation of NATO and signed the pact on behalf of the United States.

Meanwhile, China was emerging as America’s principal foreign policy challenge in Asia and a divisive issue at home. Ignoring the influence of the powerful China lobby, Mr. Acheson publicly blamed Chiang Kai-shek’s loss of the mainland on “ineptitude” and loss of the will to fight. This position, together with Mr. Acheson’s public defense of his friend Alger Hiss, a convicted Russian agent who had served in the State Department, placed Mr. Acheson squarely in the cross hairs of those foreign policy conservatives whom he dismissed as “primitives.”

The secretary’s next challenge was Korea, an Asian backwater that barely appeared on Mr. Acheson’s radar. His first reaction was the same as Mr. Truman’s - that North Korean aggression had to be halted in its tracks. To allow the destruction of an American client state, Mr. Acheson said, would gravely undermine America’s reputation as a reliable ally. Never mind that Washington had no treaty obligation to South Korea, a vulnerable appendage to the vast Asian mainland.

Mr. Acheson, purportedly “soft” on communism, was never more hawkish than during the Korean War. He masterminded the involvement of the United Nations, which gave U.S. intervention an international cast. He subsequently acquiesced in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s extension of the war into North Korea, a development that in turn led to China’s intervention. The author calls this “probably the most grievous blunder of Acheson’s tenure as secretary of state.”

With the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in 1953, Mr. Acheson returned to his law practice. His record of having defied the McCarthyites made him popular in liberal circles, and he remained active in Democratic Party politics. In 1962, Mr. Acheson was one of a group of elder statesmen who advised President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. Still a hawk, Mr. Acheson favored the immediate bombing of suspected missile sites.

The ex-secretary also advised President Johnson on Vietnam. He supported the American involvement there until after the communist Tet offensive in January 1968. He then joined a majority of the “Wise Men” advising Mr. Johnson and urged disengagement.

Mr. Acheson wrote extensively in retirement; his memoir, “Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.

The author’s overall assessment of his subject is positive. “In the pains he took to foster bonds of unity among the Western powers,” Mr. McMahon writes, “Acheson helped enshrine the practices of consultation, compromise, and multilateralism as fundamental principles of the Western alliance.” Mr. McMahon’s book is itself worthy, though the prose does not sing. His statement that Mr. Kennedy’s assassination “shocked Acheson, as it did so many Americans,” is a bit bland.

Mr. Acheson’s story is diplomatic history, but it also is the story of an exceptional friendship - that between Mr. Acheson and Mr. Truman. The president paid a heavy political price for retaining his unpopular secretary of state with his in-your-face elitism, but Mr. Acheson rewarded loyalty with loyalty. The two men maintained a close and intimate correspondence until Mr. Acheson’s death in 1971.

John M. Taylor is a historian and biographer who lives in McLean.

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