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George Catlett Marshall had worn the uniform of the U.S. Army for almost his entire adult life when President Truman named him secretary of state. The day he took the oath, Marshall walked unannounced into the office of the incumbent "number two" in the State Department hierarchy, Under Secretary Dean Acheson. "I will keep you only a minute," Marshall said with his unfailing courtesy and customary directness. "I want you to stay. Will you?"

Acheson, who had served out World War II as an assistant secretary of state, had no interest in remaining in office; he was eager to return to his lucrative law practice. Faced, however, with a formal request from arguably the most respected man in the land, he could only reply, "Certainly." In a matter of a few moments, they agreed to a transitional partnership of six months or so at the helm of the State Department.

Those six months from January to July 1947 marked the apex of American power and purpose in the Cold War. Under the stewardship of this brief, extraordinary partnership came the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, defining moments of American diplomacy whose effects endured for more than four decades and changed the course of history. Disparate in background and personal style, Marshall and Acheson recognized in each other a keen sense of public duty and an impatience with indecision.

Marshall was born in 1880 to the manager of a coal mine in Lewistown, Pennsylvania. Commissioned an army lieutenant the year after his graduation from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901, he served two tours of duty in the Philippines. Then, in World War I, he caught the attention of General John J. Pershing for his efficiency and logistical wizardry. For three years in the 1920s he managed a training mission in China, then successive base and training commands stateside. The day Hitler invaded Poland, Marshall was sworn in as the army chief of staff, charged with mobilizing the American military for a massive war effort and then with planning a two-front war against Germany and Japan. Churchill called Marshall "the true organizer of victory," and, in unaccustomed agreement, Stalin concurred.

On the home front, Marshall's stature soared even as his younger comrade, Dwight D. Eisenhower, won headlines during the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Eisenhower commanded what Marshall had planned. Senator Harry Truman called Marshall "the greatest living American," this at a time when Franklin D. Roosevelt was still alive. Suddenly becoming president on Roosevelt's death in 1945, Truman refused Marshall the peaceful retirement the 66-year-old general had planned for war's end, ordering him instead to China to mediate the raging civil war.

Wise in the ways of bureaucracy, Marshall arranged a "rear echelon" before his departure, one responsible official who would ensure that his dispatches would reach the president and not get lost in departmental power plays. For this mission of trust, Marshall called upon a State Department official he had scarcely met before but knew for his reputation of efficiency, forthrightness, and intelligence, the new under secretary, Dean Acheson. The partnership had begun.

A BLADE OF STEEL

Dean Gooderham Acheson was born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1893, son of a clergyman. An indifferent student at Groton and Yale, he blossomed intellectually at Harvard Law School, presaging a stellar career in law and public service. He idolized Oliver Wendell Holmes and clerked for Louis Brandeis at the Supreme Court, then rose quickly to become a partner in the distinguished Washington law firm that became known as Covington and Burling.

Acheson was tall and elegant, sporting a full, clipped mustache and habitually wearing a Homburg in what seemed to many a British affectation. Not at all, said the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Oliver Franks, a personal as well as official friend; Acheson was "not at all an English or British type; he is a pure American type of a rather rare species." He was, said Franks, "a blade of steel."

When Marshall became secretary of state upon his return from his discouraging mission to China, he promised Acheson a free hand in running the department; Acheson would be an all-powerful chief of staff who would consult his superior officer only when he needed help. "I shall expect of you the most complete frankness, particularly about myself," Marshall told his new deputy. He had no feelings, he said, "except those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall." Long afterwards Acheson wrote, "I wonder how many men have ever had such fundamental humility or so delicate and punctilious a sense of honor."

Marshall's tenure at the State Department began with a sense of foreboding about the future of the international system and a growing impression that the wartime partnership with the Soviet Union was not sustainable. Marshall was consumed with discerning Stalin's ambitions and strategy, and he returned deeply discouraged from the four-power Council of Ministers meeting in Moscow that spring.

Meanwhile, Acheson kept watch on the faltering European economies and read the alarming assessments of George Kennan's Policy Planning Staff and of economists like Walt Rostow, Charles Kindleberger, and, above all, Will Clayton. And Acheson gave the first public voice to the policy concerns that would culminate in Marshall's 1947 commencement address at Harvard. The setting for Acheson's speech of May 8, 1947, about America's stake in the plight of Europe was improbable: the tree-shaded lawn of a teachers' college in Cleveland, Mississippi, between Vicksburg and New Orleans.

The Delta Council, a regional civic organization, had hoped the president himself would address their annual convocation, but the state Democratic Party was at that moment engaged in a nasty political struggle, and Truman judged it prudent to stay out of Mississippi. Marshall was abroad, Acheson was the fallback -- "a hell of a comedown from the president to the under secretary of state," he remarked. The diplomat's imposing elegance might at first have startled his audience of farmers and small businessmen, their wives and children. But Acheson quickly doffed his coat in the afternoon heat, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and did not even read from the prepared text; instead, he spoke informally from notes he had made on the way down from Washington.

Europe's livelihood and America's economic well-being were closely intertwined, Acheson warned. Unless their acute dollar shortage was overcome, European countries would not be able to finance imports from the United States. "There is no charity involved in this," he told his audience. Not only do "human beings and nations exist in narrow economic margins, but also in human dignity, human freedom, and democratic institutions." The United States must widen these margins both for "our national security" and as "our duty and our privilege as human beings."

After he returned to Washington, Acheson was confronted by James Reston of The New York Times, who inquired, "Is this a new policy that you are enunciating, or is it just a bit of private kite-flying?" Ask the president, Acheson replied. At Truman's next press conference, Reston asked if Acheson's Mississippi speech represented administration policy? "Yes," said Truman, and that, for the moment, was that.

On his return at the end of May from the ministerial meeting in Moscow, Marshall took all the staff recommendations in hand and, with drafting help from Acheson and career diplomat Charles Bohlen, the Harvard commencement speech of June 5 took shape. Though Acheson left the State Department at the end of that month, abiding by the terms of his original agreement with Marshall, he remained one of the most active public advocates for the emerging Marshall Plan on the lecture circuits and before congressional committees.

ROLE REVERSAL

The Marshall-Acheson partnership did not end after those first six months. Against all expectations, Truman won the presidential election of 1948. Approaching 70, Marshall again asked to retire, and this time the president granted him his wish. To succeed Marshall as secretary of state, Truman appointed Dean Acheson. Almost two years later, faced with disarray in the Pentagon in the dark days of the Korean War, Truman again turned to the best man he knew and called Marshall out of retirement to become secretary of defense.

"When he returned to the Cabinet in 1950," Acheson recalled, "it seemed natural to all of us that, next to the president, deference was due to General Marshall. But he would have none of it. The Secretary of State was the senior officer to whom he punctiliously deferred, not only in matters of protocol but in counsel as well." In the same vein, Marshall had earlier written his former chief of staff a note of congratulations on his appointment as secretary of state. Acheson replied, "To say what makes greatness in a man is very difficult. But when one is close to it, one knows. Twice in my life that has happened to me. Once with Justice Holmes, and once with you."

Marshall finally retired for good in September 1951, and held on in failing health until October 1959. Among the last visitors to his deathbed was Winston Churchill. Acheson survived waves of partisan criticism through the Truman administration and settled into the role of elder statesman, advising Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, until his death in October 1971.

  • James Chace teaches international relations at Bard College and is editor of the World Policy Journal. His biography of Dean Acheson will be published in 1998 by Simon & Schuster.
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