Dean Acheson Resuscitated for the Young and Forgetful

Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World , by James Chace. Simon & Schuster, 512 pages, $30.

By force of intelligence, character and an uncommonly close partnership with President Harry Truman, Dean Acheson was 20th-century America’s most powerful Secretary of State. He was also its greatest, in the eyes of many historians and commentators, because of his role in creating the institutions and relationships that revived the West after World War II and helped it prevail in the Cold War.

For young Americans, Acheson is a little recognized and underappreciated figure from those grim years a half-century ago when the devastation of world war and the expansion of Communism presented daunting challenges to the United States. In retrospect, America’s response to those challenges comprised a golden age of U.S. diplomacy, and Acheson was the man of action behind key accomplishments. For those who have forgotten or have never known of Acheson’s contributions, noted foreign policy analyst James Chace has written a stimulating, at times dramatic biography of this American giant.

Acheson was strong-minded and outspoken. Above all, he was decisive. He dressed like a British gentleman and wore a bristling mustache, attributes that were easy targets for his many virulent critics. I first experienced the sharp Acheson tongue during a 1961 tour d’horizon briefing in his Georgetown home. Along with other Congressional Fellows of that year, I sat on the floor of his study while the former Secretary of State presided from a high-backed chair. Impeccably tailored, cocktail in hand, Acheson gave a commanding critique of events and personalities, becoming ever more blunt as the session wore on and the second martini arrived. He ended with a scathing depiction of a fellow Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, who had distanced himself from the Truman-Acheson legacy during his two unsuccessful campaigns for the Presidency. In Acheson’s opinion, Stevenson was wrongheaded and soft about most international challenges and disloyal, even duplicitous, in politics.

The son of Connecticut gentry, Acheson did not start out on a path to greatness. He was an underachieving, rebellious student at Groton prep school and at Yale College, a gay blade known mostly for his wit. He became a serious student only at Harvard Law School. He finished fifth in the class of 1918 after discovering “the power of thought” under the tutelage of Felix Frankfurter, who became a lifelong friend and adviser.

After brief military service, Acheson was dispatched by Frankfurter to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The eminent judge and his colleague, Oliver Wendell Holmes, joined Frankfurter in Acheson’s pantheon of heroes. Later in life, Acheson added Gen. George C. Marshall to the select list of great men who shaped his life and thought.

In 1921, Acheson joined the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington and Burling, with which he would be associated throughout his life, in between tours of government service and after his time as Secretary of State. An ardent and active Democrat, he joined the Roosevelt Administration as Under Secretary of the Treasury in 1933 but was out of a job the next year after disagreeing with the President over the legality of a Government gold-buying plan. He remained a Roosevelt supporter, undertook several assignments for the Administration and publicly backed the President for a third term in the fall of 1940. By 1941, Acheson was back in government, this time as Assistant Secretary of State for economic affairs, where he was instrumental in forging and selling to Congress the Bretton Woods accords that established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as the economic and financial underpinnings of the postwar world.

Before returning to private practice in 1947, Acheson rose to Under Secretary of State. He pushed to secure aid for Greece and Turkey to fight off Communist insurgencies; he pushed for Marshall Plan assistance to Europe for its economic recovery.

In 1949, he was tapped by Truman to succeed Marshall as Secretary of State. During his four-year tenure, he completed the building of key postwar international institutions: NATO, the Japan peace treaty and the security alliance between Japan and the United States all bear his imprint. In short, Acheson was more than Present at the Creation , the title of his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir.

Despite his achievements, he was a lightning rod for political attacks more vicious than anything to be found in today’s political culture. It was a time of tumultuous events-the Communist takeover of mainland China, the Korean War and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. In office and after, Acheson was a primary target of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist demagoguery. In 1950, House Republicans unanimously voted in their party caucus for his removal from office, and their Senate counterparts concurred by a vote of 25 to 5.

The anti-Acheson tide among archconservative Republicans began flowing during the “Who lost China?” debate and crested with the sharp military reversal in the Korean War after the surprise intervention of Chinese troops. President Truman stuck by Acheson, who remained Truman’s trusted adviser until Dwight Eisenhower won the Presidency in 1952. Even after leaving office in January 1953, Acheson found himself so dogged by criticism and tainted by McCarthy’s slurs that he had difficulty attracting legal clients. His wife remembered those years as a time when “people turned their backs” and “wouldn’t speak to us.”

Never one to suffer silently people he dismissed as “fools and self-serving blackguards,” Acheson fought back, mainly with well-honed words. But on one occasion he had to be restrained by an aide during a committee hearing: He was on the point of landing a punch on the jaw of a baiting Republican senator.

With the passage of time and the election of John F. Kennedy, Acheson’s ostracism ended. Once again, his advice was sought and his talents put to use in special assignments from Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. However, of all the chief executives he served in one capacity or another, only Truman remained an idol to him.

Mr. Chace makes good use of family diaries and letters to capture Acheson’s vivid personality and confident intellect. To the familiar story of the era’s great events, he adds fresh information from Russian and Chinese archives. In Mr. Chace’s hands, the portrait of Acheson is respectful, discrete. The brusqueness and bursts of bitterness that marked Acheson’s later years are presented without comment.

Mr. Chace’s assessment of Acheson’s professional decisions and political views are for the most part solidly conventional. But he is particularly acute when he dwells on the disparity between Acheson’s pragmatic diplomacy, his tendency to seek limited objectives and his soaring rhetoric of universalizing threats. Being “clearer than truth,” in Acheson’s words, may have been necessary to gain Congressional and popular backing for such initiatives as aid to Greece and Turkey, or for a conventional arms buildup at the beginning of the Cold War. But as Mr. Chace observes, “these rhetorical devices laid the groundwork for an expansive American policy of global containment, which would be carried out by his successors.”

Acheson was a benign hegemonist in the latter decades of his life. He grew increasingly skeptical of Europe’s ability to evolve into a common political and economic polity and thereby to stand as a partner of the United States in global affairs. Late in life he concluded that “in the final analysis, the United States [is] the locomotive at the head of mankind, and the rest of the world the caboose.” Compare that bon mot with a maxim from his earlier government years: “A balance of power has proved the best international sheriff we have ever had.”

The United States is moving into an era when overlording, however well intentioned, sparks resistance from allies and adversaries alike. By political means, and in some cases by terrorist bombs, states and political movements are taking issue with what they see as American coercion.

Acheson’s true legacy lies not in his latter-day pronouncements but in his actions from the great years of government service. With other statesmen of the time, he created the framework for the emergence of a prosperous and peaceful Western world able to best the Soviet threat without resorting to war. Mr. Chace’s biography reminds us that the architecture for this success was put in place by Truman, Acheson and their associates.