Dean Acheson

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Dean Acheson

Born April 11, 1893
Middletown, Connecticut

Died October 12, 1971
Sandy Spring, Maryland

American diplomat, lawyer, and author

In his twelve-year career with the U.S. State Department, including four years as secretary of state under President Harry S. Truman (1884–1973; see entry), Dean Acheson became one of the most influential individuals in the entire history of American foreign relations. He believed that the top concern of American foreign policy was to stop the Soviet Union in what he saw as an attempt to conquer the world. Acheson also held that the Soviets could be controlled only through the use of power, not negotiation. All of his major policies and programs were based on the principal that the United States should actively support any and all countries that were in any way threatened by Soviet communism, through economic aid, arms, and politics, in an effort to stop—or contain—the spread of communism. (The United States felt threatened by the Soviet Union because it was a communist country. Communism is a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property. Under it, goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed. It greatly differs from the American capitalist economic system, in which individuals own property.) In the years after World War II (1939–45), Acheson developed groundbreaking policies and proposals for massive economic aid programs for foreign countries and he played a central role in the Korean War (1950–53).

Tall, elegantly dressed, and sporting a bushy mustache and eyebrows and thick wavy hair, Acheson made an impressive public figure. A brilliant speaker and writer, he was perhaps best known for his sharp wit on a wide range of subjects, and he never minced words about what he thought. During his career he was labeled a communist sympathizer by certain Republicans, while at the same time some liberals accused him of heating up the cold war—a period of political anxiety and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that stopped short of full-scale war—by his unwillingness to negotiate with the communists. But Acheson was highly respected by many American leaders of both major parties, and by none more than Truman, who called him one of the "greatest Secretaries of State this country had." With the support of Truman, Acheson was one of the principal architects of the basic foreign policies that guided the United States throughout the decades of the cold war.

From prep school to Harvard Law

Dean Gooderham Acheson was born in Middletown, Connecticut, the son of Edward Campion Acheson, the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, and Eleanor Gertrude Gooderham. His father had been born in England, and then served briefly in the British army in Canada before entering the ministry and settling in New England. His mother was a member of a prominent Toronto family in the whiskey distillery business. Acheson graduated in 1911 from Groton School, an exclusive preparatory school where he had not been very interested in studies or sports. At Yale University, Acheson still was not a great student, finding the social life more amusing than studying. Then, in 1915 Acheson went on to Harvard Law School. There he took his studies very seriously, working with some of the great legal minds of the time. On May 5, 1917, he married Alice Stanley, a painter. They would have a son and two daughters.

Acheson graduated from Harvard Law in 1918 and entered a brief service in the U.S. Navy during World War I (1914–18). Then he went to Washington, D.C., for a two-year clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856–1941). Brandeis was a tremendous influence on the young lawyer, teaching him to be realistic in his application of the law, that ideals were fine, but it was necessary to find practical ways to fulfill them. In 1921, Acheson entered the firm of Covington and Burling in Washington. He quickly proved himself to be a very talented attorney, becoming a partner of the firm within five years.

In FDR's State Department

In the late 1920s, Acheson became outspoken in his criticism of the Republican party's isolationist policies, those designed to avoid alliances with other countries that might involve the United States in armed conflict. Believing the United States should defend freedom throughout the world from a position of power, he supported Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) in the 1932 presidential campaign. In May 1933, Acheson joined President Roosevelt's administration as undersecretary of the Treasury. He had been in office only six months when he resigned because he disagreed with the president's policy in regard to the gold standard. He returned to his law practice.

When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, Acheson was again a champion of military preparedness and a foe of isolationism. In January 1941, Roosevelt brought Acheson back into government as assistant secretary of state for economic affairs. For the next four years he dealt with both wartime economic measures and postwar planning. He played a major role in creating the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (better known as the World Bank), the basic institutions of a new international economic system.

Early days with Truman

When Roosevelt died in 1945, Harry S. Truman became president. He appointed James F. Byrnes (1879–1972) as secretary of state; Acheson was promoted to undersecretary of state. He also served in that capacity under Byrnes's successor, George C. Marshall (1880–1959), until June 30, 1947. During this period, when the hostilities that became known as the cold war between the Soviet Union and the West began, Byrnes or Marshall were frequently out of the country. Truman began to rely heavily on Acheson for advice on American foreign policy. Acheson directed much of the day-to-day activity of the Department of State, although as a lower and relatively unknown official, he frequently did not get credit for his work.

The Truman Doctrine

Acheson hoped that the United States and the Soviet Union would cooperate with each other after World War II. By 1946, it was apparent to him that Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) was attempting to expand Russia's spheres of control, particularly in Iran and Turkey. Acheson warned Truman about the dangers of leaving these areas open to the Soviets. Truman responded to Acheson's warnings by sending naval units to the Mediterranean. In Greece, communists were engaged in a civil war to topple the existing government. A democratic Greece was not vital to American security, but Acheson feared that the fall of Greece would set off a chain reaction, leading to communism prevailing in Turkey, Iran, and perhaps even Italy and France. He therefore convinced Truman of the need to provide economic aid to Greece and Turkey. On March 12, 1947, when Truman went before Congress to request the aid, he outlined his new policy, which became known as the Truman Doctrine. The doctrine was dedicated to containing the spread of communism. Truman's speech, which was largely borrowed from Acheson's report, set the guidelines for U.S. foreign policy for much of the cold war.

Marshall Plan

In 1947, Europe was still suffering greatly from the devastation of World War II. Acheson recommended a massive American economic aid package to the hard-pressed European nations. In May 1947, he gave a speech outlining the importance to the United States of the continued freedom and democracy of Europe. These ideas became the basis of the Marshall Plan, named for Acheson's boss, Secretary of State George C. Marshall. Put into effect in June 1947, the $12 billion Marshall Plan restored European industry and agriculture, expanded trade, and thereby stabilized social conditions.

Secretary of state

In July 1947, Acheson resigned as undersecretary of state and returned to the practice of law, but not for long. In

January 1949, he was nominated by President Truman as secretary of state and confirmed by the Senate to succeed Marshall, who had resigned for health reasons. The close daily collaboration between the sophisticated and haughty Acheson and the small-town president was the heart of foreign policy for the next four years.

To Acheson, the nation's fundamental international objective was to maintain sufficient power to stop the expansion of the Soviet Union. Acheson judged every action in terms of its importance in the struggle against the Soviet Union. That which strengthened the West (the United States and the western European nations) and weakened the Soviet Union was always to be sought, and its reverse avoided.

The first months of Acheson's secretaryship, from January to July 1949, were filled with accomplishment. His first major act was to negotiate the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the first peacetime military alliance the United States had ever entered. The founding nations—the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Italy— formed the alliance in the belief that a collective defense was the best way to protect Western Europe against Soviet attack. Greece, Turkey, West Germany, Spain, and Portugal were later to join the alliance, and at the end of the twentieth century the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary joined as well.

Acheson completed the negotiation of the North Atlantic treaty and shepherded it through the Senate in the spring of 1949. By May, he had facilitated the creation of the Federal Republic of West Germany. After World War II, Germany had been split into four zones, with the western portions falling under the jurisdiction of the Western powers while the eastern portion fell under the influence of the Soviets. The Soviets, having failed to prevent the establishment of a pro-West West German government, then lifted a blockade they had placed on West Berlin, similarly divided but situated in what soon became East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). In the summer, Congress approved an expensive military aid program for the North Atlantic allies. Then came two shocks: the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in August 1949 and the triumph of the Communists against the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, formally marked by leader Mao Zedong 's (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976; see entry) proclamation of the People's Republic of China in October 1949.

A new look at Russia and China

Since the United States had been the only nation with the atomic bomb since the beginning of the cold war conflicts—the American military dropped two on Japan in August 1945 to hasten the end of World War II—Soviet nuclear capacity was an unwelcome change in the game plan. In response, Acheson argued for the development of the thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb. President Truman agreed in January 1950 and the work began. Acheson also arranged for a comprehensive study on the nature of the conflict with the Soviet Union. The result was a classified but widely leaked National Security Council memorandum, completed in April 1950. NSC 68 called for a three-to four-fold increase in military spending, intensified secret action against the communists, and an accelerated nuclear buildup. The report concluded that negotiating would not be effective in solving differences with the Soviet Union unless the Western nations had superior power.

When the Communists under Mao won the civil war in China, the Truman administration, and particularly Acheson, were accused of having sold out China, because they had withdrawn their support from Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entry) when it became obvious that the Nationalists could not stay in power. (Chiang and the Nationalists lost popular support in China due to their own corruption and incompetence.) After the Communist victory in China, Acheson continued his effort to persuade congressional and other critics that events in China were determined by the Chinese, and specifically by the corruption and political blundering of the Chinese Nationalists, and not by anything the American government did or failed to do. Acheson went on to argue that China and the Soviet Union were natural enemies to each other, that the United States should stand aside and let that conflict develop, and not become China's enemy through a policy of intervention. He made this argument at the Press Club on January 1950.

Acheson's Press Club speech was remembered, however, for an incidental description of the American defense perimeter in the Pacific. He included Japan and the Philippines within the American lines of defense, but not South Korea. Acheson's critics would claim afterwards that this speech invited the North Korean attack of June 1950 that started the Korean War.

The Korean War

The Korean War was the pivotal event of Acheson's four years as secretary of state. He reinforced Truman's determination that the North Korean aggression had to be turned back. Acheson handled the diplomatic side of that endeavor, arrang ing United Nations action (possible only because the Soviets happened to be absent) against the North Koreans and reassuring allies and gathering their support. After a terrible start for the Americans, by September 1950, U.S. military intervention had routed the North Korean army. Like the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the advisors to the president and the secretary of defense on matters of war), Acheson believed that all of Korea should be united by force. Acheson supported the crossing of the 38th parallel—the dividing line between North and South Korea— into North Korea by the UN forces under command of General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry) and their drive north toward the border of China. Along with many others he had grossly underestimated the People's Republic of China. The Chinese struck in full force in November 1950, inflicting heavy casualties and throwing UN troops into a massive retreat.

After the devastating Chinese attack, Acheson struggled to stabilize American foreign policy. He reassured European allies fearful of the outbreak of nuclear war. As MacArthur had repeatedly disobeyed orders in publicly criticizing the president's foreign policy, Acheson supported Truman's decision to dismiss MacArthur as commander of Korean operations in April 1951. While he advocated strong military efforts to drive the Chinese back into North Korea, he began to prepare for an armistice (a truce or suspension of hostilities).

Other issues in the State Department

Acheson and Truman used the conflict in Korea to gather congressional support for the administration's cold war policies. Acheson pressed ahead with the political and military strengthening of NATO through the appointment of General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; see entry) as its supreme commander, the stationing of additional American troops in Europe, assistance to the French in their war against the forces of nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh (1860–1969) in Indochina (Vietnam), and a peace treaty and defense agreement with Japan (signed in 1951). By February 1951, Truman and Acheson had reintroduced the selective service system (the draft), tripled defense-budget requests, doubled the number of U.S. air groups, increased the army by half to 3.5 million, raised the number of American divisions in Germany to six, and established American bases in Morocco, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. In March, the United States had completed development of a hydrogen bomb and secured a free-market trade system and American bases in Japan.

Private citizen Acheson

When Truman left office on January 20, 1953, Acheson left with him. His time in office was marked by controversy. Despite his hard-line positions with the Soviet Union, he was often accused of being soft on communism. The China Lobby, a group made up mostly of Republican congressmen who had supported Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in China, were most outspoken on the issue. One of Acheson's accusers was the Republican senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957; see entry) of Wisconsin, who repeatedly accused the State Department of harboring communists. Few secretaries of state have received so much criticism as Acheson. His superior manner was partly to blame. The open disdain he displayed for people and arguments he didn't like greatly angered his opponents.

Acheson was too committed to foreign policy to confine himself to the problems of corporate clients. In the final eighteen years of his life he wrote six books, scores of articles, and maintained an extensive exchange of letters with friends around the world. Three of the books were political commen tary, three were memoirs, including his major work, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (1969), which won a Pulitzer Prize in history in 1970.

With the inauguration of Democratic president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) in 1961, Acheson's advice was once again welcome in the White House. In 1965, he urged President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) to press on to victory in the war in Vietnam. His message on every issue through 1967 was vintage cold war: be tough, be brave, and do not shrink from spending money or using military force. But when consulted by Johnson on Vietnam in 1968 after the Tet Offensive, in which the enemy Viet Cong surprised the United States in a major attack on several South Vietnamese cities, he abandoned his earlier stand. He believed that victory was no longer possible at acceptable cost, and that the United States should begin to pull out of the war. Acheson's abandonment of the traditional hard line was a significant element in Johnson's decision in March 1968 to seek a negotiated settlement of the war while renouncing his candidacy for reelection in November.

Acheson died suddenly of a stroke at the age of seventy-eight while working at his desk at his farm in Sandy Spring, Maryland.

Where to Learn More

Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.

Brinkley, Douglas. Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953–1971. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

Chace, James. Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

McLellan, David S. Dean Acheson: The State Department Years. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976.

McLellan, David S., and David C. Acheson, eds. Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980.

Smith, Gaddis. Dean Acheson. New York: Cooper Square, 1972.

Web sites

"Books," New York Times Archives. Featured Subject: Dean Acheson. [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

armistice: talks between opposing forces in which they agree to a truce or suspension of hostilities.

atomic bomb: a powerful bomb created by splitting the nuclei of a heavy chemical, such as plutonium or uranium, in a rapid chain reaction, resulting in a violent and destructive shock wave as well as radiation.

China Lobby: a group of Americans during the late 1940s and early 1950s who fervently supported Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in his struggles against the Communist Chinese, and who held a romanticized and sometime patronizing view of the Chinese people and their relations with Americans.

cold war: the struggle for power, authority, and prestige between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist Western powers of Europe and the United States from 1945 until 1991.

Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.

hydrogen bomb: a very powerful bomb created by the fusion of light nuclei, such as hydrogen atoms, to form helium nuclei, which causes a sudden release of atomic energy.

intervention: the act of a third party who steps into an ongoing conflict in the attempt to interfere in its outcome or stop it altogether.

isolationist: someone who holds the view that a country should take care of its problems at home and not interfere in conflicts in other countries.

military preparedness: being ready to fight in a war, in terms of personnel, training, equipment, arms, transportation, and other factors.

Nationalists (Chinese): the ruling party led by Chiang Kai-shek in China from the 1920s until 1949, when the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War and forced to withdraw to the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa).

NATO: the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of nations in Europe and North America with shores on the Atlantic Ocean, formed in 1949 primarily to counter the threat of Soviet and communist expansion.

nuclear buildup: the creation and maintenance of a reserve of atomic weapons.

NSC 68 and the Cold War

At the time of the Korean War, the expansion of the Soviet Union and communism into Eastern Europe was of concern to many Americans. Prior to 1950, American policy was embodied in the Marshall Plan, in which the United States furnished enormous amounts of economic aid to countries, particularly in Europe, threatened by a communist overthrow. But this nonaggressive policy of containment, which was first brought to widespread public attention by the diplomat and Russian expert George F. Kennan (1904–), came into question late in 1949. At that time, the Soviets detonated their first atomic device and the Communist Chinese won their civil war against the Nationalists and established the People's Republic of China. In early 1950, China and the Soviet Union signed an alliance, and many were deeply concerned about the balance of world power.

On January 31, 1950, President Harry S. Truman requested an analysis of the Soviet threat, and soon one of the most provocative documents in foreign policy of the time was underway in Washington, D.C. National Security Memorandum No. 68 (NSC 68) was a top-level, top-secret government report on "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security." It was written by a joint state and defense department committee under the supervision of Paul Nitze, the director of the policy planning staff, and distributed to Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other top-level officials on April 14, 1950.

NSC 68 proclaimed that the Soviet Union "is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical [opposite] to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world." Since the United States was the only world power to come out of World War II in a position to stop the Soviets, the memorandum continued, it must take responsibility to do so. And since the Soviets did not negotiate on the same terms as the Western noncommunist countries, only military force was proposed as the means to halt Soviet efforts. The report recommended a tremendous military buildup and an outrageously huge defense budget. It also urged a large increase in the creation of nuclear weapons. The NSC 68 put the cold war into new terms, saying "the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake." The document stressed that the Soviets must not be allowed to take any more territory anywhere in the world, and that rather than containment, or holding Soviet expansion to the existing boundaries, the U.S. policy should be to roll back Soviet communism—that is, to actually take territory away. The report stated that any action that could stop the Soviets in their design to take over the world is reasonable: "covert [secret] or overt [out in the open], violent or non-violent."

Soon after the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, Truman made NSC 68 official (though still top-secret) U.S. policy.

Source: "NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, (April 14, 1950), A Report to the President Pursuant to the President's Directive of January 31, 1950." U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: 1950, Volume I. Also available online at (accessed on August 14, 2001).

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