Dean Gooderham Acheson was born in Middletown, Connecticut, on April 11, 1893, into a stable world of which Europe was the center and where America was poised to attain hemispheric dominance.  That world’s certainties were shattered in the trenches of Northern France, but the shock was less profound among America’s northeastern aristocracy—to which Acheson belonged by birth and temperament—than among its European counterparts.

America was spared melancholy self-doubt for another half-century, and young Acheson’s disposition reflected its absence.  Tall and striking in appearance, elegant in dress and polished in manner, he exuded the quiet self-confidence that used to come naturally to the alumni of Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law School. By the early 1920’s, Acheson was a well-placed young lawyer, blessed with “the knowledge that one has been tested and that the gods have looked favorably.”  A decade later, suitably married and with three children, Acheson was on partnership track in a leading Washington law firm.  He could have completed a solid but undramatic life, ending it as a Supreme Court justice or president of an Ivy League school.

Robert Beisner’s major biography is short on the reasons Acheson chose public service over law—the first two thirds of Acheson’s life are covered in a mere dozen pages—and exhaustive on the service itself.  This imbalance is the book’s only real flaw.  Too early, the author presents us with the mature man in his prime, pursuing a career in appointed officialdom, taking positions on issues, making allies and enemies.  What made the man tick is barely hinted at.  A summer spent building railroads in northern Canada when Acheson was 19 gets a brief paragraph; a trip to Japan after his graduation from Yale, not even a full line.  As a student, he has a political argument with his father and is banished from home for a year, but we do not learn what their disagreement was about.  More significantly, Beisner attributes Acheson’s early and enduring commitment to the Democratic Party to five factors—his father’s paternalistic sympathy for “the common man,” the influence of his mentor Felix Frankfurter, his friendship with Louis Brandeis, his firm’s connections, and his opposition to protectionism—but these are merely listed, and their relative weight is not assessed.

Acheson’s first foray into government came in 1933 with a brief stint as undersecretary and acting secretary of the treasury.  It ended in a noisy dispute with President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the price of gold and currency policy.  Acheson’s objections were justified, and, although he acted as a man of principle, he did so rashly, causing public embarrassment for FDR.  Acheson then returned to his old firm, now as a partner, but soon grew disenchanted with the corporate regimen.  Having tasted, however briefly, the “rare meat” of political power (as Frankfurter observed), he found it “painful to return to the hardtack of the law.”  He despised Roosevelt ever after, but the episode taught him the necessity of helping presidents protect their prestige—a lesson that he was not to forget while serving Roosevelt’s successor as secretary of state.

The story of that service evokes the old theme of a plodding master and his effortlessly superior servant, but Harry Truman was no Bertie Wooster.  He was respectful of Acheson’s worldly eloquence yet unawed by it, telling him, “You know, twenty guys would make a better Secretary of State than you, but I don’t know them.  I know you.”  Acheson was no Jeeves, either.  He knew that avoiding condescension to the Missourian autodidact was essential to his chosen career.  He would never seek elective office, yet he enjoyed the “rare meat” too much to risk a repetition of 1933.  To gain and keep Truman’s full confidence was the only way to savor the dish.  That demanded tactful patience and occasional brown-nosing (e.g., rushing to meet Truman at Union Station on his return from Missouri in November 1948), and neither came naturally to Acheson.  His ability to cultivate his relationship with the President, a key theme that Beisner develops in detail, resulted in Acheson’s “success at helping change Truman from a man at sea in diplomacy to a confident leader who knew his secretary of state to be loyal, able, and valued abroad.”

Another result was Acheson’s ability to influence U.S. foreign policy more profoundly than any other secretary of state in the past century, Henry Kissinger included.  In his almost four years as undersecretary, and another four years as secretary, of state (1945-53), Acheson effectively copresided over America’s transformation into a superpower with global commitments.  He helped develop an array of complex policies, entities, and instruments supporting those commitments, starting with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and culminating in the creation of NATO, the rearmament of Germany, and the decision to intervene in Korea.

Six decades later, it is tempting to blame Acheson for having been a key architect of today’s American Empire, a malevolent creation that has morphed into a threat to this country’s identity and a disruptive menace abroad.  The man deserves to be judged in the context of the dilemmas and challenges of his own time, concerning which we must ask: Was the Soviet Union, in the late 1940’s, an aggressive, expansionist power bent on global domination?  Moreover, was George Kennan’s assessment of Moscow’s intentions in the Long Telegram of 1946 the correct one?

Starting with William Appleman Williams’ Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the answer prevalent in the American academy has been in the negative, or at least ambivalent.  The revisionists have held that America had always been prone to empire building and reflexively anticommunist, while Stalin—intimidated by the crude signal sent by Hiroshima and Nagasaki—was acting defensively, and in line with Russia’s traditional geopolitical concerns.

The revisionists’ failure to grasp the role of the Soviet leaders’ worldview in the origins and subsequent conduct of the Cold War is on par with the refusal of many contemporary Western analysts to come to terms with the problem of Islam.  In both cases, these aggressive actions and hostile impulses may, in part, have been induced by the need for security, or in reaction to American power, arrogance, and specific policies.  The root problem, however, is a global ideology that blends religion and politics, whose impetus to expand and dominate abides irrespective of the actions of others, making it impervious to appeasement.

The material that has been made available from the Soviet archives since 1991 proves that Kennan was presciently correct in his assessment, and that the New Left revisionists are wrong.  Now we know that Stalin’s paranoid personality, his acceptance of violence as a legitimate means of pursuing “progress,” and his absolute control at home made the Cold War inevitable regardless of American actions.  Even had he been motivated by a rational quest to ensure “security” for his expanded domain, he would not have stopped short of seeking absolute security, just as a jihadist cannot stop short of turning every last square inch of the Dar al Harb into the Dar al Islam.

Acheson’s evolution into a Cold Warrior did not occur overnight; Beisner dates it with finality to the second half of 1947.  The paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy that occurred after 1945 had demanded a new conceptual framework and an abiding commitment—not to the creation of a global empire but to the limited goal of coping with the malignant adversary in the Kremlin.  America’s response, Acheson concluded, demanded the creation of “situations of strength” along the Soviet periphery—above all, in Western Europe—to deter aggression and to create the preconditions necessary for negotiations.  He and Kennan subsequently disagreed on the right mix of strength and diplomacy (Kennan came to resent the “militarization” of his own views), but not on the essence of the threat itself.

Acheson’s Eurocentric instincts and his unconcealed disdain for what is now known as the Third World (he memorably described Africa as “dark and delirious”) had served him well in setting his priorities.  Beisner convincingly argues that Acheson was justified in resisting enormous pressure from the China lobby to continue supporting Chiang even when his cause started looking hopeless.  An escalating entanglement on the Mainland would have drained American resources at a critical time for Europe, and Acheson sensed that Stalin would have liked nothing better.  A communist China, even one that included Formosa, would be a nuisance; a communist Europe, however, would have been a catastrophe.

Acheson’s abiding lack of interest in, and dislike of, Asia (the very thought of India gave him “the creeps”) may have contributed to the biggest blunder of his career (pace Beisner).  By casually omitting South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in a Press Club speech in January 1950, he sent the wrong signal to Kim Il Sung and his mentors—as dangerously wrong as that conveyed by Amb. April Glaspie to Saddam Hussein in June 1990, when she told the Iraqi dictator that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”

Acheson later stubbornly insisted that nothing he said had “fooled the Russians one bit.”  Nevertheless, his lingering unease about the episode may have stiffened his resolve when the attack from the North came six months later.  “Both Truman and Acheson went to war in 1950 to defend U.S. prestige,” writes Beisner, “a vital source of strength in conducting foreign policy.”  Their resolve helped stabilize the Cold War divide.  From June 1950 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the communists inspired and funded countless insurgencies and “national liberation movements” all over the world—Malaya, Cuba, Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Nicaragua—but no outright military onslaughts across the divide.

Acheson’s latent snobbery was the root cause of his other major blunder: his misguided support for Alger Hiss.  This damaged his reputation and undermined the State Department’s credibility at a difficult time.  His grandiloquent line to the press from January 1950, “I do not intend to turn my back on Mr. Hiss,” would haunt him until the end of his life.  “I knocked myself out,” he admitted to a reporter in 1969.  “[A]n element of pride entered into this.”

That same “element” was on display at a closed session of the Senate Appropriations Committee on August 30, 1950.  His old enemy, Sen. Kenneth Wherry (R-NE), wagged his finger across the narrow table at him, whereupon Acheson rose to his feet and told him not to shake his “dirty finger in my face”:

Wherry “bellowed that he would, and he did.”  When Acheson started a roundhouse swing at the Nebraskan, [former Princeton guard and State Department legal advisor Adrian] Fisher saved his skin, wrapping Acheson in his arms, pulling him down, and saying, “Take it easy, Boss; take it easy.” . . . On his way out, Acheson told a reporter he was “going home for a stiff drink.”

The urge to give it to someone “right on the jaw” used to add color and spice to politics in Washington when it was still a sleepy Southern town.  It is lacking in today’s imperial capital, dominated as it is by think-tank ideologues, spin masters, pollsters, and sensitivity-trained speechwriters.


[Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War, by Robert L. Beisner (New York: Oxford University Press) 800 pp., $35.00]