- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Introduction by David McCullough
Knopf, $30, 343 pages

Surely they were two of the more acerbic-tongued men ever to grace American public life - President Harry S. Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson. Forget that they were an unlikely pair: Truman, a small-town Missouri boy and a failed haberdasher whose formal education had ended at high school; Acheson, a to-the-manor-born son of an Episcopal bishop, educated at Groton and Yale, a Washington superlawyer before and after public service.

But they shepherded America during the frosty start of the Cold War, and successfully. Their leadership put the brakes on attempted Soviet expansion through such programs as the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt war-torn Europe, and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which discouraged military aggression by the Soviet Army.

The depth of their friendship is revealed in a remarkable exchange of correspondence after they left office, a book guided to publication by Acheson’s son, David, who persuaded Truman’s heirs to grant copyright permission for use of the former president’s letters. The resultant book is a major contribution to the history of the era, given that both men wrote with candor, knowing that their opinions were for each other’s eyes only.

The warmth they enjoyed is touching - for instance, Truman’s good-natured gripes about “The Boss” - i.e., his wife, Bess - who keeps a tight rein on him. They cherish the time they can spend together, in Missouri, where Truman was planning his presidential library, and in Washington, where Acheson hosted the Trumans at the family home at 2805 P St. NW. They exchange congratulations on birthdays and anniversaries. And as age takes its toll, Truman feels that the “man with the scythe” is beginning to cast a shadow. (Disclosure: For years I have belonged to a monthly “old boys” luncheon group that includes David Acheson.)

The letters also serve as a tutorial on the conduct of foreign policy. To their dismay, both men thought President Eisenhower permitted U.S. foreign policy to drift into disarray. Truman puts much of the blame on Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, “an old Snollygoster” who “has lost us friends in South America by trying to put Sullivan & Cromwell [his former law firm] again in control of tin in Bolivia and copper in Chile. … Dull, Duller, Dulles.”

(“Snollygoster,” derived from the old German, means a politician who is guided by personal advantage rather than principle - not quite indictable, but close to it. There is another, earthier definition that you are not going to read in these pages.)

He also charged that Ike “surrendered” in Korea by accepting truce terms that he had rejected. Acheson, for his part, felt that Eisenhower and Dulles had “made a magnificent mess” of foreign policy.

But Acheson did not hesitate to direct tough language toward Truman when he felt his friend was wrong on foreign affairs. Commenting on a draft of HST’s memoir, Acheson took issue with the contention that the Balfour Declaration, which established Palestine as the national home of the Jewish people, jibed with the Wilsonian principle of self-determination.

Acheson said the declaration “absolutely and directly violated” such a principle. “Self-determination, I believe, would entitle the Arabs living in Palestine to decide whether they wanted to be inundated by Jews. Instead, what was done was to bring the Jews in over the objections of the Arabs.”

That criticism, and others, did not bother Truman. As he wrote back, “There is nothing worse for a man’s character than friends who tell him always how good he is.” Responding to another criticism, he wrote, “Damn it, Dean, you are one man who can say to me what you please on any subject.”

But Truman mainly kept his doubts about Eisenhower unspoken. In a rare lapse, he made a savage attack on the Eisenhower administration at a 1955 Democratic dinner. He wrote Acheson that he did not apologize for “exploding,” explaining, “I don’t want to be an ‘elder statesman’ politician. I like being a nose buster and an ass kicker much better.”

His targets (privately) included fellow Democrats. He sarcastically referred to Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic presidential nominee, as “our esteemed leader,” and wrote him off as a “paunchy quipster.” In August 1960, on the eve of the Democratic convention, he dismissed John F. Kennedy as “this immature boy” who was nonetheless preferable to Richard M. Nixon, whom he considered “a dangerous man.”

Truman’s candor about Democrats, although usually expressed privately, unnerved Acheson, who feared that Republicans could seize upon an off-the-cuff remark and use it in the 1960 campaign. He wrote an extraordinarily blunt letter to his friend, counseling him to keep quiet about the possible candidates - a lecture that Truman took in good grace.

Acheson, too, was contemptuous of Kennedy, likening him to “a sort of Indian snake charmer. He toots away on his pipe and our problems sway back and forth around him in a trance-like manner.” In the run-up to the 1960 election, Acheson appraised Lyndon B. Johnson as the “ablest man in public life today … a giant among pigmies [sic]” even though “he has thousands of faults.”

By 1966, Acheson had soured on LBJ, writing, “He creates distrust by being too smart. He is never quite candid. … He yields to petty impulses such as the desire to surprise everyone with every appointment. It is too childish.” But he remained one of the “wise men” who consulted with LBJ frequently, and he was in the group whose advice in the spring of 1968 persuaded Johnson not to seek re-election.

As an old Washington hand, I gaze around town and regret that my eyes do not fall on another Truman or Acheson. I just went back and read a “spasm” letter that Truman wrote to Acheson in December 1955 that seems applicable to many current talking-head “experts” and media personalities who pose as “wise men.”

As Truman wrote, “We have men, in this day and age, who are prostitutes of the mind. They sell their ability to write articles for sale, which will be so worded as to mislead people who read them as news. These articles or columns are most astute and plausible and unless the reader knows the facts are most misleading. … Prostitutes of the mind have been the great menace to free government since freedom of speech and freedom of the press [were] first inaugurated.”

Give ‘em hell, Harry - we need it.

Joseph C. Goulden wrote about Truman and Acheson in his books “The Best Years: America 1945-50” and “Korea: The Untold Story of the War.”

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