Acheson, Simply Put

Acheson, Simply Put

Mini Teaser: Chace's Acheson is encompassing, graceful and prodigiously researched and annotated.

by Author(s): Robert F. Ellsworth

James Chace, Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 512 pp., $30.

He was colorful and brainy, stylish and witty, hot-tempered and domineering, visionary and pragmatic--and a near genius with the written and spoken word. He was a partisan Democrat, and the skillful architect of an enduring bipartisan foreign policy. He was also an indefatigable workhorse who was always and everywhere a passionate seeker after excellence. He was a brilliant manager, leader, and administrator of the Washington bureaucracies of his day. He was not just an immaculately tailored Washington figure: he enjoyed barnstorming the country on behalf of his policies--sharing the spotlight with Mayor Hubert Humphrey at a huge civic affairs seminar in Minneapolis, speaking to a convention of the Machinists Union in Kansas City, sharing a three-day, 5,000-strong "family" gathering of planters in the Mississippi Delta. He was equally and completely at ease in the palaces of Europe and the cities of Asia. He staved off Soviet hegemony in Western Europe and bound the Federal Republic of Germany into NATO: the democratic, political, economic, and military alliance of the West. He fashioned a balance of power in Europe so that American soldiers would never again have to fight a great war there, and so far--that is, fifty years on--they haven't had to.

This theatrical, egotistical, serious, exuberant master of power politics at home and abroad was surely miscast as a mere secretary of state. Still, what else could Dean Acheson have been in the world of the 1940s and 1950s?

As James Chace points out in Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, being secretary of state also fed Acheson with "the adrenaline of power." He loved it, and wrote to his daughter that his life in office was "a seductive drug" that helped him exercise his "vital power . . . far beyond what we had thought of as his strength." In turn, this power worked to the benefit of the nation in a tumultuous era of fateful, high-risk gambles. He was a street-fighter type whose gentlemanly experiences at Groton, Yale, and Harvard had not impaired in the slightest his keen ability to see, without illusion, where power lay. His indomitable character then gave him the self-discipline to pursue his interests (and the nation's) accordingly.

Acheson's strength of character did not fade with age. One of the most arresting anecdotes that Chace reports tells how an aging Acheson, then fully eight years out of office, advised President Kennedy when asked for his views--before the fact--on the CIA's planned invasion of Cuba in April 1961. With some asperity Acheson observed to the President that it didn't take Price Waterhouse to figure that an "invasion" force of 1,500 volunteers stood no chance against a standing army of 25,000. Similarly, a few years later when assessing U.S. military estimates of the course of the Vietnam War, Acheson did not hesitate to tell the formidable Lyndon Johnson, "Mr. President, you're being led down the garden path."

Chace's Acheson is biography at its best: encompassing, graceful, prodigiously researched and annotated. The scope of his effort to reach all sources is impressive, and his judicious use of documents from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the People's Republic of China that have appeared since the end of the Cold War gives the book great historical depth.

The book James Chace has written is in fact better than the title bestowed on it. That title suggests that Acheson alone "created the American world." But while making clear Acheson's unique and powerful leadership role, the book actually does full justice--as Acheson would surely have insisted--to the crucial roles of Harry Truman and George Marshall, as well as to the important ones played by Eisenhower, Nitze, Vandenberg, and Robert Taft. Senator Taft led Congress in forcing the Truman administration to hammer out in the fiery crucible of public debate a policy that was not only bipartisan but had the full understanding and support of Congress, the press, and the public. When on April 4, 1951 Congress approved sending four divisions to Europe, both sides rightly claimed victory. The debate had been bruising, but it had been conducted under the discipline of the Constitution and with an acute awareness that history was in the making.

Of course, like all the biographies and histories ever written, Chace's Acheson necessarily simplifies reality. No matter how hard historians try, they cannot convey anything at all unless they simplify; and reviews of books further simplify the already simplified. This process is culturally reductive, involving the casting of one era in terms of another, the subject's in terms of the author's--and the cultural and temporal gap between Acheson's day and ours, while only forty-five or fifty years, is not trivial. In those years we have lived through the cultural turmoil of the sixties, the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, the globalization of financial transactions, the transformation of agriculture, industry, and communication under the impact of technology, and the emergence of intellectual postmodernism and multiculturalism in our great universities.

For this reviewer, the essential simplification to insist on is this: in Acheson's time there really were giants who walked the earth and who, as they did so, "created the American world." Such a broad and simplified reading, I suggest, is not without its uses today. Different as our times are from Acheson's, Chace's reading of their daunting uncertainties and challenges can serve to counter our own mood of depression and disillusion, and to give hope that we may yet overcome our sense of not knowing where we are or where we may be going. The imagination, the courage, the intelligence, and the moral integrity of those giants--one of the most impressive groups of Americans since the Founding Fathers--ought to be held up as models to which we might aspire.

But that said, these men were not perfect, and we can also learn from their shortcomings and various close judgments. In the process of crafting an innovative and durable foreign policy for this country, Acheson exposed himself to the moral hazard of helping to create and feed a national paranoia by (necessarily, as it seemed to him at the time) using the real Soviet political and military threat to our vital national interests in Europe to invoke the much broader ideological threat of communism. This required the sloganizing of "the American national interest" into a global ideology, without always distinguishing between vital interests and less than vital ones. At first this was in order to get two tactical wins in Congress: approval of the Truman Doctrine, and then of the Marshall Plan. Acheson knew precisely what he was doing. Sardonically, he referred to his own exercise in simplification as a process of making things "clearer than truth." It seemed both necessary and convenient in 1947.

There was plenty of cloth to work with. For the best part of a century Europe had been in the grip of a virulent ideological conflict between socialism and liberalism. Karl Marx had captured and inflamed the socially corrosive effects of the "industrial revolution" (itself a concept involving a huge simplification) when he wrote: "Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa. Es ist das Gespenst des Kommunismus." Acheson's invocation of that great Manichaean struggle in Europe, and his linking of it with the confrontation of the victors that followed the end of World War II, fed both McCarthyism and public confusion about our own national interests.

Later on, in 1949-50, Acheson again allowed the communist threat to override his own better judgment, this time concerning Vietnam. By that time, he had come to believe that the United States should no longer support the French war in that country, as it had been doing to the tune of 40 percent of the total operations costs. In his view, the French were colonizers, clinging to an anachronistic position in Indochina against the tide of nationalism. However, in order to buy French compliance with alliance policy toward Germany, Acheson supported ongoing congressional support for the French in Vietnam, again invoking the threat of global communism to justify doing so.

One lesson to draw from such simplifications of history on the part of a man as honest and sophisticated as Dean Acheson is that we would be wise to resist our own temptation to try to make sense of a confused and complex international scene by simplifying to excess. To take an obvious example, some exaggerate the threat posed to the West today by a renascent Islam, which is spuriously linked, both by prominent terrorists and anti-terrorists, to terrorism itself. Osama bin Laden, Hamas, and others clothe themselves in the mantle of religion to win legitimacy, and some Americans react wrongly against the religion instead of the terrorism. As the Acheson case demonstrates, however deliberately and calculatingly such simplification is engaged in, the potential for causing trouble is immense.

Exaggerations about conspiracies to take over the world sink their roots deep in collective paranoia, and the phenomenon itself never entirely dies. At aristocratic parties in Paris and at certain fashionable country clubs in the suburbs of Houston one still hears it about the Jews. A few years ago it was the Japanese. Who knows what may come next?

Another important reading of Acheson the book, as well as of the Acheson era itself, concerns the way he dealt with an historic issue that is very much with us as we move into the twenty-first century. It is the issue of China. Are the Chinese today conspiring to replace America in Asia, and at the same time become America's peer competitor in the world? In January 1950 Acheson could see that vital American national interests would be served by splitting China from the Soviet Union, and as Chace relates, he tried to bring this about. But as the China Lobby was then in full array and Mao had other fish to fry, he did not succeed. In February 1950 Mao signed up with Stalin and got seven fat years of industrial and economic assistance.

Beijing and Moscow split in 1957, as Acheson had anticipated they would some day. Fifteen years later, in 1972, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger went to Beijing, met with Mao, and commenced the great U.S.-China rapprochement that Acheson had briefly tried to bring about a generation before. This severely limited the Soviet Union's room for maneuver, and it served both American and Chinese national interests, even though it ran against the grain of both powers' ideological predilections. The American Right never quite forgave Nixon for it, and many of them are still determined to see in China nothing but an enemy.

A man's dealings with China, or communism, or politics do not define him. Acheson was, as each of us is, a unique confluence of inheritance and experience. What Chace has to tell us about Acheson's spiritual side bears no less on his public life than his many temporal talents. In a sense, Acheson's spiritual life may be read as an expression of his upbringing in the ecclesiastical house of his father, an Episcopal rector in a small Connecticut city (and later the Bishop of Connecticut). As a young adult just out of law school, Acheson became quite close to Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, the Court's first Jewish member. One afternoon Brandeis erupted in prophecy, making a deep impression on the young man. As Acheson later paraphrased him: "Morality was truth; and truth had been revealed to man in unbroken, continuous and consistent flow by the great prophets and poets of all time." In his later life at moments of anguish and tension, Acheson would draw on those prophets and poets, or on Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. In April 1950, under vicious and brutal attack from Joseph McCarthy, he cited the famous and somber words of the seventeenth-century poet and Anglican Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee."

This was not a plea by Acheson for sympathy or help for himself--which would have been utterly out of character. It was rather a warning to the members of his audience--the American Society of Newspaper Editors--that they were themselves simultaneously participants in and victims of McCarthyism. It was in the style of a pastoral admonition from a Bishop to his flock.

At the end in 1971, more than a thousand mourners attended Acheson's funeral at the Washington Cathedral. They heard the service for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer. There was no eulogy; it would have been an unacceptable simplification.

Essay Types: Book Review