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No. 3, February 2000
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Dean Acheson - The biography by James Chace
 
James Chace is Professor of Government and Public Law at Bard College and editor of World Policy Journal. His biography of Dean Gooderham Acheson is a political one. Except for Acheson's youth, he does not portray the private citizen in detail. Chace concentrates on the life of the public servant, especially on his impact on foreign policy. And even there, he concentrates on the overall picture. Therefore, Chace's book is sometimes more a comprehensive introduction to American foreign (and domestic) policy than an actual biography.
 
The subtitle of the book, The Secretary of State who Created the American World, is reflected in Chace's statements that Acheson was "the most important figure in American foreign policy since John Quincy Adams" and that he was "a prime architect of the Marshall Plan". Acheson clearly was a key figure in the formulation of American foreign policy but not the only one. In his more than 400 pages, Chace naturally also gives credit to other men.
 
Dean Acheson, the son of an Episcopal pastor who later became bishop of Conneticut, was born in 1893 in Middletown, Conn. He was a teenage rebel. He finished last in Groton School (northwest of Boston) but still managed to get into Yale University. Despite his mediocre academic record, Acheson was accepted at Harvard Law School where he finally took off, finishing fifth in his class. Professor Felix Frankfurter became his mentor and suggested him to Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis as a law clerk. Acheson went to Washington where he was to spend the rest of his career. He worked for Brandeis for two years. Influenced by the Justices Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Acheson tried to reconcile their opposite views and evolved from a moral absolutist to a pragmatist.
 
In the 1920s he worked as a lawyer with Covington and Burling. Still interested in labor law, he "also became convinced that the orderly flow of international capital movements, lower tariffs, and reciprocal trade agreement were conducive to international peace and prosperity. He had become a Democrat." In the early 1920s, he was a member of Washington's liberal Penguin Club and later became active in the Maryland Democratic Party.
 
In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him Treasury Under Secretary - thanks to Felix Frankfurter, "a longtime political confidant and admirer of FDR's". Acheson left government in 1934 because he believed that FDR lacked the legal authority to purchase gold at a price above the one fixed by statute. FDR hoped to relaunch the economy that way - but his gold-buying plan "never yielded very dramatic results". Acheson had opposed it on legal, not on strictly economic grounds.
 
As a private citizen, Acheson continued to influence politics. He chaired a panel whose work led to the Administrative Procedures Act which governs the way federal agencies operate. He helped find legal loopholes that allowed FDR to send military equipment to Britain. He was convinced that the nation's vital interests legitimated executive action without congressional authorization. Later, Acheson's campaign strategy advice impressed Roosevelt to the point that it led to a job as Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs. Acheson was part of the creation of the Lend-Lease-system that prepared America's entry into Second World War. Secretary of State Cordell Hull asked him to take in hand the creation of a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, Acheson's "first big creative job". He was also "instrumental in creating the international financial institutions at Bretton Woods", the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (he was one of the men who drafted its charter). Regarding the Charter of the United Nations, he thought it was impracticable.
 
Three quarters of Chase's book are dedicated to the Cold War. There are too many actions and events, so just a few facts: After FDR's death, Acheson served President Truman, a former haberdasher, especially as Secretary of State from 1949 to 1953. Both men were products of small-town life and men of action. "For Truman, the greatest political value was loyality." Acheson was loyal "as much to the office of the presidency as to the man." He admired  Truman's "no-nonsense style of doing business, which was so unlike FDR's". An "iron bond" between the two men helped forge new institutions and define new policies.
 
Acheson was a driving force behind the creation of the Marshall Plan to restore the West European economies. He also urged the President to fire General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination since he wanted to use nuclear arms against China. Acheson was accused of having lost China to the Communists in 1949, but withstood the assault of Republicans in Congress who wanted him removed from office. Later, he refused to denounce Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy and "stood up to the vilifications of Senator Joseph McCarthy". Acheson supported Truman's choice to engage in combat in Korea in 1950 after the North had started invading the South. He was a key figure behind the creation of NATO, the formulation of the Truman Doctrine and the setup of the postwar international financial structure. In those years, America emerged as the World's leader and the policies, that finally helped to bring down communism, were formulated and implemented.
 
Acheson was a (according to Chase the) strategic thinker: "in his essence [... he was] a realist". He helped America to make the "right" choices at the beginning of the Cold War. He served later Presidents from Kennedy - as a member of his executive committee during the Cuban missile crisis - to Nixon, as informal adviser and emissary. He urged President Johnson and later President Nixon to disengage in Vietnam. Acheson broke with Nixon when he extended the war into Cambodia. America and the rest of the world owe Acheson tribute. Chace's biography is an important part of it. Although he studied newly opened Soviet and Chinese archives as well as some family letters and diaries, Chace largely relies in his work upon secondary literature and on Acheson's own writings (especially on his famous autobiography Present At The Creation). Therefore, he does not present a new Acheson, but the essence of his work and impact on American (foreign) policy.
James Chace: Acheson. The Secretary Of State Who Created The American World. HUP, 1999 (Paperback), 512 p. Get it from Amazon.com
Dean Acheson: Present at the Creation. My Years in the State Department. Paperback (October 1987), W. W. Norton & Co. Acheson's autobiography is outstanding in its genre and a must for everybody interested in American politics. It won him the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1970. Get it from Amazon.com

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No. 3, February 2000
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Copyright 2000  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.