Published December 17, 2006
By Robert L. Beisner Oxford University Press, $35, 800 pages
Exhaustively researched, brilliantly written with pertinent detail, this portrait of Acheson as President Harry Truman’s chief foreign policy advisor can inform generations of students about the early Cold War years when Western freedom was under siege by the 20th century’s most dangerous adversary. “After 1945,” Mr. Beisner writes, “Americans’ objective was to found and uphold a world order compatible with their own values and institutions.”
Like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and many other men of affairs, Acheson was a card-carrying member of America’s eastern elite who had been nourished at fashionable prep schools and Harvard Law. Acheson did his undergraduate work at Yale and his learned father was an Anglican bishop.
Mr. Beisner says that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was Acheson’s “intellectual model.” He quotes Acheson: “the first moment I saw Justice Holmes I succumbed to hero worship.” In 1948, Acheson quoted Holmes: “The chief end of man is to frame general propositions, and no general proposition is worth a damn.” Acheson clarified: “General principles do not decide concrete cases.” Acheson with his wit and intellect turned out to be at least as brilliant and literate as his hero.
Mr. Beisner suggests that Acheson’s class loyalty determined his early action in standing up for Alger Hiss, the notorious and controversial Soviet spy: “His declaration supporting Hiss was impetuous but not impulsive, the result of hours of thought and planning. However valorous, his studied attempt to give witness was his greatest political blunder” and “eased the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.”
Among its many other virtues, this book demonstrates that Acheson understood the difference between morality and moralism, between historical realism and rational idealism. Like other post-Versailles realists, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill, Acheson recognized that Woodrow Wilson’s extravagant expectations were not ratified by subsequent events. To rational idealists like Wilson, the “impossible ideal” is achievable because it is rationally conceivable. To realists like Acheson, the “impossible ideal” is relevant because it lends humility without despair and hope without illusion.
Acheson regarded his Republican successor as secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, as moralistic and preachy. According to Mr. Beisner, Acheson also “probably considered Dulles untrustworthy ever since he refused to endorse FDR’s destroyer deal with Britain in 1940.” As it turned out, Dulles actually pursued Cold War policies during the first six years of the Eisenhower administration much as Acheson would have. After Dulles’ death in 1959, he was succeeded by Christian Herter.
As a student of American foreign policy, Mr. Beisner has mastered the art of relating particular events to the larger picture and to historical precedents. Dealing with the Truman Doctrine, the policy of providing U.S. economic and military aid to countries threatened by Moscow, for example, he invokes the experience of Rome and Carthage.
Mr. Beisner deals honestly and in informed detail with Acheson’s successes in specific U.S. policies in Europe, but beyond Europe “his record was ambiguous.” The author addresses specific policies in Asia, with special attention to the quandaries presented by Japan, China, Korea and Indochina. His treatment of Truman’s firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur with Acheson’s fervent blessing reads like a Greek drama.
From his abrupt ascendancy to the White House, Truman’s courage in facing a crescendo Soviet threats was buttressed and informed by Acheson’s keen sense of history. The 1948 Berlin crisis is an example.
On April 24, Stalin, abruptly blockaded all surface traffic from the Western occupation sectors to Berlin, a clear violation of the Four Power Agreement. The next day Truman authorized a massive airlift of food and coal to supply two million West Berliners. By April 1949, one Allied plane a minute was landing in West Berlin. After two million tons of life-saving supplies had been delivered, Stalin lifted the blockade on May 11, 1949. West Berlin would remain free.
It was Truman’s finest hour, a stark contrast to John F. Kennedy’s capitulation in 1961 to Khrushchev’s coils of barbed wire between East and West Berlin that after three days were replaced by concrete slabs that became the Berlin Wall.
As a fellow scribbler, I savor dates and documentation, especially when reading American history. Fortunately, Mr. Beisner provides 111 pages of unobtrusive notes and a generous 30-page index.
This engaging book paints an authentic portrait of Acheson’s intelligence, knowledge, charm and, yes, arrogance. His imposing figure with thick dark eyebrows and carefully trimmed mustache could be intimidating.
The book is replete with stories demonstrating that Acheson did not suffer fools gladly. He seemed to have a running love-hate affair with the New York Times. In 1964, the Times called him “America’s leading iconoclast,” and two years later James Reston found “‘The Gentleman from Sandy Spring’ in fine fettle.” On at least one occasion when he deemed the Times wrong or unfair, he lamented: “These are the New York Times that try men’s souls.”
Central to the Acheson saga is the mutual trust and affection between him and Truman that runs like a silver chord throughout the book. Though separated by class and culture, but not by intellect or love of history, they were genuine comrades in arms.
Truman’s quiet and dignified wife, Bess, deserves more than two brief mentions given by Mr. Beisner, so permit me to recall a lunch I had with Acheson at the Cosmos Club in April 1970. I had invited him, the Portuguese ambassador and my wife, Margaret, to discuss a hoped-for trip by Acheson to southern Africa. At one point Acheson recalled an incident involving Mrs. Truman and his wife, Alice. It went thus:
When Acheson arrived at his Georgetown home one evening, he found Alice visibly upset: “I did something wrong and I don’t know what to do!”
“Well, out with it,” said Acheson.
“This afternoon I was driving two Senate wives to lunch near the National Cathedral. Along the way my passengers made snide remarks about Mrs. Truman’s ‘dowdy appearance.’ Angry, I stopped the car and deposited them on the Woodley Road sidewalk. It was terribly wrong of me and I don’t know whether to apologize by phone or letter.”
“Apologize? Never!” said Acheson. “Let’s celebrate with a stiff drink.” Selah.
Acheson’s new interest in Africa led him to review my book, Spear and Scepter: Army, Police, and Politics in Tropical Africa, in the Washington Star (Feb. 21, 1971). He called it a “meticulous and documented study, almost a primer in government.”
It was one of the last things Acheson wrote. Eight months later, he was found slumped over his typewriter in his Sandy Spring, Md., home, dead of an apparent heart attack. America and the world had lost a great statesman, and I a friend.
— Ernest W. Lefever, founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written 10 books on U.S. foreign policy issues.