|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
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
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
"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