Reprinted from the Weekly Standard, September 14, 1998
Dean Acheson may be the most respected secretary of state of the last fifty years, but he is also the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented. The Cold War policies he helped put in place -- the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, containment, the global ideological and strategic challenge to the Soviet Union -- now seem as unassailable as if he had brought them down from the mountain on stone tablets. Yet, as James Chace's new biography of Acheson shows, the true meaning of the man's legacy and what it implies for American foreign policy today remains a matter of intense debate.
The confusion about Acheson begins with something as mundane as his appearance: his famous "aristocratic" bearing, the prominent mustache, the natty clothing, and the mid-Atlantic accent that so grated on Republican Senators in the 1940s and '50s: "this pompous diplomat in striped pants, with the phony British accent," as Senator Joseph McCarthy once put it. Even less intemperate senators found Acheson arrogant and supercilious. He talked, said one, "as if a piece of fish had got stuck in his mustache." Richard Nixon recalled in his memoirs that Acheson presented an irresistible target to Republicans looking for a symbol of the effete Eastern establishment. Acheson's "clipped mustache, his British tweeds, and his haughty manner made him the perfect foil for the snobbish kind of foreign service personality and mentality that had been taken in hook, line, and sinker by the Communists."
For all his sartorial dash and aristocratic tone, however, Acheson's roots were neither wealthy nor patrician. His father, an Irish immigrant, was a low-church Episcopal rector; his mother was from a successful family of millers, well off but not rich. Acheson grew up in comfortable, upper-middle-class circumstances in Middletown, Connecticut.
When he was sent off to boarding school at Groton -- that bastion of elitism where the Auchinclosses and the Harrimans rubbed elbows under the school's domineering rector, Endicott Peabody -- Acheson rebelled, graduating at the bottom of his class. As a senior, he published in the Grotonian "The Snob in America," a thinly veiled assault on the Groton style. "The essence of democracy is belief in the common people," he wrote, "and the essence of snobbery is contempt of them." When Peabody in exasperation told Acheson's mother that he could not make a "Groton boy" out of her son, Mrs. Acheson replied, "Dr. Peabody, I didn't send Dean here to have you make a 'Groton boy' out of him. I sent him here to be educated. . . . I will leave him here as long as you think you can succeed, though you give me considerable doubt." Acheson's confident and condescending manner derived not from blue blood but from an iron-willed and supremely self-assured mother.
Acheson remained something of a rebel all his life, even in government service. He was never cowed by authority, much less by the authority of class. He had a mixed view of Franklin Roosevelt, a man whom he respected for his understanding of power but who treated his aides and cabinet officers with patrician condescension. "It was not gratifying," Acheson later said, "to receive the easy greeting which milord might give a promising stable boy and pull one's forelock in return." As a senior Treasury Department official, he clashed with Roosevelt over the president's plan to devalue the dollar in a way that Acheson believed violated the law. The president responded to Acheson's lawyerly complaints with a simple Rooseveltian pronouncement: "I say it is legal." When Acheson brazenly replied that it was he, not Franklin Roosevelt, who would have to put his signature on the order, Roosevelt told him to go, ending Acheson's five months in the New Deal.
The one president Acheson truly admired was not the real aristocrat Roosevelt or the faux-aristocrat John F. Kennedy, but the accidental president, Harry Truman. In elite circles, both Democratic and Republican, Truman was known as a hack haberdasher who had spent his political life as a cog in Missouri's Pendergast machine. But Acheson devoted himself to Truman with an unusual loyalty both during and after his presidency. As Chace notes, "Truman never really had a close male friend, until, toward the end of his life, he found one in Dean Acheson."
The confusion over Acheson's manners has been nothing compared with the controversy over his policies as secretary of state, a controversy that never diminished over the four decades of the Cold War. It is sometimes imagined in today's forgetful world that the late 1940s and early 1950s were a time of consensus about strategic imperatives. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and no one knew better than Dean Acheson how bloody the battles were. As the principal shaper of American foreign policy in those years, he was attacked from every conceivable direction.
Conservative Republicans flailed at Acheson as a dupe of Moscow, the "Communist-appeasing, Communist-protecting betrayer of America," as Senator William Jenner called him, or, as the more alliterative Richard Nixon put it, the "Red Dean of the College of Cowardly Containment."
But to others, Acheson was the epitome of hardheaded anti-communism. Senator Arthur Vandenberg saw Acheson as a thoroughgoing anti-Communist hawk, "totally anti-Soviet and . . . completely tough." Walter Lippmann, America's most influential columnist and a leading proponent of foreign-policy "realism" in his day, agreed that Acheson was tough. In fact, he was too tough, too driven by anti-Communist ideology, too inclined to confront the Soviets, and too ambitious in his exercise of American power. At a famous Georgetown dinner party in 1948, Lippmann railed against the Truman Doctrine's expansive promises to defend "free peoples" every-where. Acheson, the Truman Doctrine's intellectual author, loudly accused Lippmann of "sabotaging" American foreign policy. Fingers were jabbed in chests. And when Republican congressmen less than two years later voted unanimously for Acheson's resignation on the grounds that he had betrayed both China and Korea to communism, Lippmann, the dean of the college of cowardly columnists, joined in calling for Acheson's head.
The controversy persisted throughout the Cold War. In the 1950s, Acheson remained tarnished by Republican attacks and still bore the absurd reputation of being soft on communism. He was shunned as a political liability by Adlai Stevenson during that hapless candidate's two failed presidential runs. Even John Kennedy, though he admired Acheson, would not give him a high-ranking post in his new administration.
Nevertheless, the events of the 1950s and early '60s did much to rehabilitate Acheson's reputation. By the time Kennedy took office, Acheson's foreign-policy legacy had become far less controversial. Nixon's earlier criticisms of Acheson's "cowardly containment" lost their punch when the Eisenhower-Nixon administration proved no more -- and indeed somewhat less -- aggressive against communism than Acheson had been. Among Democrats, meanwhile, Acheson's brand of liberal anti-communism had become the reigning orthodoxy. When Acheson, as the senior figure in a group known as the "Wise Men," urged Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to hold the line against communism in Indochina, even if it meant introducing thousands of American combat troops, he was expressing the near-unanimous view of the liberal foreign-policy establishment. By the end of the 1960s, Acheson stood at that establishment's pinnacle, and when Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the erstwhile baiter of the "Red Dean" assiduously courted Acheson's favor. By 1970 Acheson had become, in the words of Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, "the high priest of the old order."
But no sooner had Acheson been rehabilitated than that old order exploded over Vietnam, and Acheson's reputation came tumbling down again. A new breed of liberals, disgusted not only with Nixon but also with the Democrats' role in bringing America into the war, found the original villains in Acheson, Truman, and the post-war establishment. Wasn't it Acheson's grand strategy -- from the Truman Doctrine through the Korean War -- that ultimately led the United States into Vietnam? In 1972, no less a figure than Senator William Fulbright declared that "the anti-communism of the Truman Doctrine" had indeed been "the guiding spirit of American foreign policy since World War II."
Leftist revisionist historians like Walter LaFeber fleshed out Fulbright's argument. In the 1980 edition of his influential America, Russia, and the Cold War, LaFeber angrily charged that it was Acheson and his colleagues who invented the original "domino theory," applied with such disastrous results in Indochina. It was Acheson who had consciously refused to place limits on the Truman Doctrine's application around the world. And it was Acheson who had pressed for American intervention in the Greek civil war in 1947, an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of another nation, justified in the name of anti-communism, that provided the model for intervention in Vietnam less than two decades later.
This revisionist attack by LaFeber and many young liberals during the 1970s resonated even within Acheson's liberal establishment. Acheson's policies now seemed too bold. As Isaacson and Thomas noted in their biography of the establishment, The Wise Men, Vietnam turned liberals into "quasi isolationists; they argued that the United States was badly overextended and had to pull back, that communism was not monolithic, and that its threat had been grossly overestimated." On every one of these points, it was difficult to pretend that the anti-Communist policies and worldview they were now attacking had not been the policies and worldview of Dean Acheson.
Difficult but not impossible. Isaacson and Thomas, speaking for the new, post-Vietnam liberal establishment, labored to put some distance between Acheson's policies and later American behavior. Perhaps Acheson in his efforts to win congressional approval for early Cold War policies had employed an overheated rhetoric and oversold America's role in defending "free peoples."
Perhaps Acheson, like the sorcerer's apprentice, had unwittingly unleashed forces that then overwhelmed him. But the key word is "unwittingly." Acheson and other Truman administration officials "would have been quite taken aback if they had realized in 1945 that for the next forty years -- and perhaps for decades to come -- the world would lurch from one crisis to another, driven on favored creating "situations of strength" everywhere, not just in Europe but also in Asia, where he explicitly called for the containment of communism. He opposed negotiations until the United States had "eliminated all of the areas of weakness that we can." He insisted that the Soviets had to "modify their policies" before the United States could consider "meaningful negotiation . . . on the larger issues that divided us." In order to create situations of strength, Acheson wanted a massive American military buildup, from less than $15 billion a year to more than $ 50 billion -- an increase most in the Truman administration believed would bankrupt the country, but which Acheson believed was well within the capacity of the American economy. It took the Korean War to convince Americans (and, for that matter, President Truman) that Acheson was right.
Acheson also believed the Cold War could, in time, be won. He predicted a future in which "a thriving Western Europe would continue its irresistible pull upon East Germany and Eastern Europe. This would, in turn, have its effect upon the demands of the Russian people on their government." The pressures for a higher standard of living in Russia would ultimately require that the Soviet Union disassemble its command economy and its imperial control of Eastern Europe. At that point, Acheson believed, negotiations for the reunification of Germany would be possible and with it "the return of real national identity to the countries of Eastern Europe." This, Acheson declared in 1958, had been "the goal of Western policy for the past decade."
Acheson did, indeed, believe the Cold War struggle was between good and evil, a view he wanted expressed clearly in NSC 68, the famous planning document whose production he supervised in 1950. The document's authors, including Paul Nitze, asserted that the Cold War was "in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake." The Soviet Union was not just another great power but a nation "animated by a new fanatic faith antithetical to our own, [which] seeks to impose its authority over the rest of the world."
NSC 68 refused to define where America's interests were vital. Containment was to be global. "Nowhere," Chace notes, does NSC 68 spell out in any geographical detail where American interests conflicted with Russia's. Although the point of NSC 68 was to call for greater expenditures to defend existing U.S. interests, the authors of the document did not define those interests, only the threat. Interests could therefore expand or contract according to Washington's evaluation of that threat. In formulating this policy of global strategic and ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union, was Acheson behaving like a realist? There was a fairly well-defined realist position in the debates of the early Cold War years, a view that was expressed most consistently by Walter Lippmann, but also by George Kennan who, despite being the intellectual author of containment, sought immediately to disown the policy. Both Lippmann and Kennan were horrified by the clear implications of the Truman Doctrine; Lippmann predicted it would mean "inexorably an unending intervention in all the countries that are supposed to 'contain' the Soviet Union" and was thus a recipe for "insolvency." Kennan even opposed the creation of NATO and called for a complete withdrawal of both American and Soviet troops from Europe -- prescriptions that Acheson and the Truman administration rejected as unworkable and reckless.
According to Chace, Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and Dean Acheson were all realists, yet they disagreed profoundly on the most important issues of the day. There is something wrong with this picture, though Chace apparently does not see it: Either realism is a hollow concept, useless for analyzing American policymaking, or Acheson was not a realist.
The former conclusion is tempting, but for now it may be enough to note that whatever realists claim to believe about the world and America's role in it, Acheson was not one of them. The genuine realist Henry Kissinger knew it. In his 1994 opus, Diplomacy, Kissinger writes, "The fathers of containment -- Acheson and Dulles and their colleagues -- had, for all their sophistication on international affairs, conceived of their handiwork is essentially theological terms." Kissinger goes too far, but he is closer to the mark than Chace.
In making the case for Acheson's realism, Chace is forced to argue that Acheson was often disingenuous. The expansive, ideological language of the Truman Doctrine, for example, was merely a political tactic to win approval for aid to Greece and Turkey using the only rhetoric an ideological Congress and public could understand: anti-communism.
Chace bases this conclusion on Acheson's famous later declaration that, when dealing with Congress and the American people, it had been necessary to make arguments "clearer than truth." Like Isaacson and Thomas before him, Chace suggests that Acheson knew better than to believe his own rhetoric. "Despite the messianic language of Truman's speech," Chace argues, "Acheson had a more pragmatic and temperate worldview." Acheson might be blamed for the excesses that followed from his rhetoric, but he at least knew that it was only rhetoric.
Perhaps nowhere is Chace's misunderstanding greater than in his failure to grasp the point Acheson was making about democratic leadership. When Acheson said that his arguments were "clearer than truth," he was not suggesting that they were untrue. On the contrary, they were, in a way, more true. Acheson understood, as realists like Lippmann and Kennan seemed not to, that it is often necessary to return to first principles.
In 1947 Acheson believed, correctly, that Americans needed to be reminded what the fight was all about. It was not, in fact, about how the fate of Turkey might affect the strategic situation in the eastern Mediterranean. It was, as Truman and Acheson said, about the fate of freedom in the world. Acheson feared the American people would not understand the importance of saving Turkey unless they saw how that tactical decision fit into the transcendent task of saving the new liberal world order from the emergent Soviet threat.
Acheson made his point even more clearly when explaining the choice of language in NSC 68. Here again Chace wants us to believe that Acheson did not fully agree with that document's ideological rhetoric and seemingly open-ended commitment of American military power abroad. Acheson used such rhetoric only to gain "support that would have been much harder to achieve had he been more nuanced." But Acheson explained his motives quite differently. He later described NSC 68 as "the most ponderous expression of elementary ideas." And he quoted his hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who once "wisely" said that there are times when "we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure."
In order to absolve Acheson of responsibility for the way America conducted the Cold War, Chace has chosen to accuse him of deliberately misleading the American public, not once but consistently throughout his tenure in office. But a man of Acheson's proven integrity does not deserve this kind of insulting defense. If it is true, as Chace claims, that it was Acheson's policies that won the Cold War, why does Acheson need any defense at all?
The answer can be stated in two words: Ronald Reagan. It is now clear that it was not Eisenhower or Kennedy or Nixon but Reagan whose policies most resembled those of Acheson and Truman. Reagan, too, saw the world as engaged in a decisive ideological struggle. Reagan, too, drove both liberals and realists to distraction by openly declaring the Soviet Union an "evil empire."
Like Acheson, Reagan believed it a mistake to negotiate with Moscow until the United States had created situations of strength around the globe. And like Acheson, Reagan believed America's most important Cold War task was rebuilding its military strength. He even agreed with Acheson on the importance of a missile-defense system. Reagan, more than any other president, carried the prescriptions of NSC 68 and the Truman Doctrine to their conclusion.
This is more than Chace can bear to admit, and it is something that most realists today would like to ignore. To acknowledge that both Acheson and Reagan were right, and that the realists of their day were wrong, is to make a concession fraught with implications for the present era of American foreign policy. If realism did not win the Cold War, as it clearly did not, then why should we look to realism for guidance in the post-Cold War world, when the liberal order Acheson worked so hard to establish is once again under siege?
The better policy seems to lie in following the course set out by Acheson fifty years ago -- for although international circumstances have changed again, the need to conduct a foreign policy that blends strength and moral purpose has never changed.