Dean Acheson, architect of an era

August 16, 1998|By Joseph R. L. Stern | Joseph R. L. Stern,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World," by James Chace. Simon and Schuster. 495 pages. $30.

Voila un homme. "There's a man," Charles de Gaulle said of Dean Acheson after one of his many encounters with the brilliant, tough-minded secretary of state who fostered the international institutions that led to America's stunning triumph in the Cold War. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank - these and many other initiatives owed their clarity of purpose to the man who was Harry Truman's diplomatic "right arm" in the chaotic years just after World War II.

Despite its extravagant title, this first full-fledged biography of Acheson provides the kind of realistic appraisal he would have approved. It is neither hagiography nor polemic, though the always controversial Acheson attracted a full measure of both. James Chace, editor of World Policy Journal, makes a strong case that Acheson was not only "Present at the Creation" of the post-war order (the title of Acheson's own memoirs) but was, indeed, its "prime architect."

It is laughable, in retrospect, that this quintessential Cold Warrior was taunted by his Republican opponents as "soft on Communism." Richard Nixon jibed about Acheson's "Cowardly College of Communist Containment" during the 1952 campaign. Yet years later, Nixon regretted "the intensity of these attacks," saying Acheson was "one of my most valued and trusted unofficial advisers."

It was Acheson's reverence for the presidency, and Harry Truman's respect for the office of secretary of state, that undergirded the extraordinary bond between these unlikely intimates. Just weeks after Truman catapulted into the White House, Acheson described the new chief executive as "straight-forward, decisive, simple, entirely honest" - an

evaluation from which he never retreated. Truman valued Acheson's unflinching loyalty even in the darkest days of political defeat and international setbacks.

The two leaders pursued a diplomacy that was unerring in building up a strong Western Europe but a "hodgepodge" (Acheson's own word) in Asia. During his long retirement, Acheson was astute in urging President Kennedy to send troops up the autobahn to call a Russian bluff on Berlin but came to see his error in his early support of the Vietnam war.

He could be wrong, of course, in his judgment calls but was quite willing to change course if the facts so dictated. In the first year after World War II, he advocated a direct appeal to Stalin to avoid a nuclear arms race. Only after Soviet attempts to control ++ the Dardanelles led to the Turkish-Greek crises, did he champion an uncompromising response to Russian expansionism.

"The time has come when we must decide that we shall resist with all means at our disposal any Soviet aggression," Acheson declared. Biographer Chace contends this was not an ideological crusade on Acheson's part. He detested John Foster Dulles' moralisms. As a self-described pragmatic realist, Acheson held that the way to deal with Moscow was to let the Kremlin know "that we are quite aware of what our interests are and that we are quite firm about them and quite prepared to take necessary action."

Convinced that Soviet pressure in Europe had to be countered by a rearmed and prosperous Germany allied with France and Britain, he steadfastly promoted the organizations that eventually prevailed in the Cold War. Despite his homburg and his guardsman's moustache, Acheson was never sentimental over the British relationship. Nor was he under any illusion that France was a reliable ally. But he consistently was more responsive to the imperatives of the Western Europeans than to Third World aspirations, even allowing France to "blackmail" the U.S. into backing French colonialism in Indochina.

Acheson's detractors never forgave him for "losing China" (a ludicrous charge) or for excluding Korea from the U.S. "defensive perimeter" in the Western Pacific shortly before North Korea launched its fateful attack. But Chace notes he was merely reiterating the position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He chides Acheson and Truman for missing an opportunity to get congressional approval of "limited war" in Korea and criticizes their failure to rein in Gen. Douglas MacArthur before his march to the Yalu brought the Chinese into the war.

Though biographer Chace sprinkles his text with objective criticism, he is much too generous in calling Acheson's refusal "to turn my back on Alger Hiss" the secretary of state's "finest hour." Rather, it was an exercise in self-indulgence that ignored his oft-stated obligations to his office and president. The famous Hiss statement caused the administration huge McCarthy-era problems at a time it could hardly afford them.

While this landmark biography offers a strong presentation of the public Dean Acheson, it touches lightly on his private life. The son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, an indifferent student at Groton and Yale, a suddenly zealous Harvard Law disciple of Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a feisty young New Dealer who had the temerity to defy Franklin D. Roosevelt, the formidable Acheson intellect is clearly etched.

The reader learns next to nothing about his marriage and nothing about his relations with his children. This is the stuff of future biographies. For now, we can be grateful for this long-deserved account of a man Harry Truman described as "among the greatest of the Secretaries of State the country has had."

Joseph R.L. Sterne was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun and before that a political and foreign correspondent. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

! Pub date: 8/16/98

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