In This Review

Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World

Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World
By James Chace
512 pp, Simon & Schuster, 1998
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I first met Dean Acheson in the week of the Bay of Pigs at what he rather charitably described as "a meeting of intellectuals" in Bologna, Italy. The occasion, rather than the attendance, is described on page 389 of Chace's authoritative and reasonably succinct biography of the 51st secretary -- of state. For me, then a relatively young backbench Labour member of the British Parliament, Acheson trailed clouds of glory, not only for the assured authority of his personality, but for his record as perhaps the key member of a team of architects -- the others were Harry Truman, George Marshall, Ernest Bevin, Robert Schuman, and Jean Monnet -- who built a Western world that was first a secure bastion and then a lighthouse that sent out a beam of attraction that was eventually to destroy the menace of the Soviet empire. Acheson was not an unduly modest man, but when he called his 1969 memoirs Present at the Creation, it was an understatement.

I last saw him in December 1970 at a Washington dinner party given by the late author Douglass Cater and his wife, now the stepmother-in-law of the king of Jordan. By this time Acheson, who toward the end of his secretaryship of state had been bitterly denounced not merely as a liberal but almost as a crypto-communist by Senator Joseph McCarthy (and indeed by Richard Nixon), had by a supreme irony come to embrace some views of which the deplorable senator, had he been alive and with the intelligence to understand Acheson's typically taut and sophisticated expression of them, might well have been proud. Acheson considered the South African and Rhodesian regimes among the best in the world, and Chancellor Willy Brandt with his dangerous Ostpolitik an agent of communism, a ludicrous mantle which Acheson himself had once been forced to wear with a mixture of pain and pride.

If these views pointed to a faltering of Acheson's judgment in the last year of his life, this was not accompanied by a similar faltering of the crisp abrasiveness with which he expressed them. The evening for me was memorable for the way in which he put to the sword Edmund Muskie, who was also present, than for the unexpected eccentricity of his own views. The amiable senator from Maine was limbering up for his 1972 presidential bid and eager to get the support of Acheson, whom he appeared hardly to have met. As a result he made the fatal mistake of responding to Acheson's half-teasing but epigrammatically expressed budget of provocation with a long meander which began with the statement that he reckoned he could go along "with about 90 percent of what had been said" (which few sane men would have done) but adding the gloss that there was need for much more democratic participation in policymaking.

Acheson, having listened with impatience to this response, then turned on him like a matador on an old bull. "Are you trying to say, senator, that United States foreign policy should be determined in a series of little town meetings in the state of Maine? Don't ask them, senator, tell them. When I believe you will do that, I will support you. Until then, not." Whereupon he turned his back on Muskie, effectively dismissing him from the conversation as well as rejecting his ambitions.

WINTER OF THE PATRIARCH

I was half-aware during this exchange that I had observed two defining moments. First, it was one of the last cries of the 30-year history of authoritative American world leadership under the auspices of the Democratic Party. Acheson was a splendid exponent of this tradition, arrogant, elitist, courageous. It was also the moment when, well before his becoming tearful in Manchester, New Hampshire, I realized that Muskie, in spite of his many admirable qualities, would not make a president of the United States. Someone who could not stand up to a fusillade from Acheson, formidable though that could be, was unlikely to be able either to beat Nixon or, if elected, to deal adequately with Leonid Brezhnev or Mao Zedong.

In Muskie's defense, however, it must be said that Acheson did have a reputation for disenchantment with presidents, let alone presidential aspirants. Truman was the exception. He and Acheson supported each other in an alliance of mutual respect and loyalty. But with the rest Acheson was either critical from the beginning or allowed his faint praise quickly to wither. He objected to Franklin Roosevelt on the odd ground, particularly for Acheson, that he called everyone "from his valet to the secretary of state" either by his first name or a nickname, and was in general too assuredly patronizing. He never in my experience referred to FDR (17 years dead when I first knew Acheson) as anything other than a cool "Mr. Roosevelt." He allowed him neither a "president" nor a place in history without a prefix. It was reminiscent of the old lady in Henry James' Aspen Papers who always spoke of the poet as "Mr. Shelley." For Eisenhower his enthusiasm was well short of the ecstatic. Kennedy he took to slowly (mainly because of Kennedy pŠre), but even after working quite closely with him he said, long after JFK's assassination, that while he was "attractive" and "blessed with real charm" he was well short of being "in any sense a great man." For Johnson, who craved Acheson's approval, he began with a burst of enthusiasm which soon turned to a mounting irritation. With Nixon he began with enmity, followed by a lurch toward forgiving old grievances. Fastidious though he was, Acheson, like most of us, found it difficult to resist the twitch upon the thread of an invitation to a White House (or its near equivalent) consulting session. It was only a year or so, however, before his natural urge to criticize reasserted itself. Long before Watergate he was off Nixon.

THE YOUNG MATADOR

Born in 1893, Dean (an odd name in such a family) Acheson was the son of an Episcopal clergyman of English origin who became bishop of Connecticut. Although his mother was the daughter of a Canadian whiskey distiller and bank president, he was never part of the plutocracy. Everything about him was of discriminatingly high quality, from his upbringing in Connecticut to his school in Massachusetts, his university back in Connecticut, his law school once more in Massachusetts, his law firm with the splendidly Waspy name of Covington and Burling, his high public service posts, his elegant pre-Civil War house in Georgetown, his eighteenth-century farm in Maryland. But he was never a New Yorker. He always managed to skip over that city of wealth and fashion on the Hudson, and there was something symbolic about that.

He was thought in middle life to look like the epitome of an Englishman, with his black Homburg hats, his bristling mustache, his waistcoats, his dark town suits and occasionally severe tweeds. Item by item he looked like Anthony Eden, but not in the ensemble. His Englishness was only superficial. This was not because he was trying to look English and failing; what he really looked like was an East Coast American gentleman showing the English how they ought to look if they pulled themselves together and showed a little more moral fiber. Of his British opposite numbers as foreign minister he made Bevin look lumbering, Herbert Morrison slovenly, and Eden too self-consciously negligent. Acheson looked crisp, confident, and a little bossy. He was very clear-sighted, at least to the middle distance, and he had no squeamishness about peering into the abyss of dark alternatives.

THE ESTABLISHMENT ABROAD

Acheson was, however, surprisingly good at personal relations, except perhaps on Capitol Hill. He did not appreciate Prime Minister Attlee's laconic and reclusive quality, but he got on crucially well with Ernest Bevin, the massive and earthy foreign secretary of that British government. The Acheson-Bevin link was important, for, contrary to a general impression that after the years of wartime partnership there was a natural camaraderie between American and British leaders, it was against the trend. Bevin admired Marshall but did not have easy rapport with him. With Truman his relations were vitiated by Israel. Nor were Truman-Attlee relations at all close. Dulles' relations with Eden were abysmal, and were not much better with Churchill and Macmillan. So Acheson's ability to see gold beneath Bevin's rough exterior (he always had a certain liking for roughness alongside his fastidious streak, as in his summer stint at the age of 18 as a tree-feller for the building of the Canadian National Railroad) came at a crucial and testing time for the creation of Western unity.

Acheson, however, had the breadth and sense not to be Anglo-Saxon-centric. He got on almost equally well with Robert Schuman, the ascetic-looking Lorraine lawyer who had been brought up in Metz under the German occupation of 1870-1918 and was an early architect of Franco-German rapprochement. Sometimes he cultivated Schuman too much for Bevin's taste, but that was at least partly because of the growing attachment of the United States to European unity, of which Schuman became the symbol, while Bevin, although determinedly attached to an Atlantic community, stood somewhat truculently offshore from a European one. Acheson was also good with the Gothic arches of Konrad Adenauer's appearance and personality. The Federal Republic of Germany was then abjectly weak, but Acheson had the foresight to treat its first chancellor with a respect that laid secure foundations for a Washington-Bonn axis, at least until Helmut Schmidt became disenchanted with Jimmy Carter's leadership of the alliance.

FIRST SERVANT OF HIS STATE

Acheson was in my view a great secretary of state and had many virtues, but he had his faults. Although on the greatest issue of his day he was a moderate, in the sense that he wished to contain and not destroy the Soviet Union, he had something of a black-and-white mind and a streak of arrogant perversity. This came out in his 1933 resignation from the Treasury, in his unnecessary and exaggerated throwing of the cloak of friendship over Alger Hiss in 1950, which considerably reduced his effectiveness in his last years at the State Department, and in his flip-flops on Vietnam. On the other hand, it led to his being the solitary figure to greet Truman at Union Station, Washington, on the president's return from the disastrous midterm elections of 1946, which led to one of the most successful president-secretary of state relationships in American history.

Chace provides a wise and well-paced account of the central events of Acheson's life. His difficulty is that Acheson's memoirs were comprehensive and sparkling, and indeed I was struck by the fact that whenever a footnote was interesting enough to make me turn to the reference appendix, the source was nearly always Present at the Creation. However, Chace has produced an admirable political biography. There is, thankfully, no attempt at psychosexual revelation, but there are occasional passages on lifestyle, done with perception, restraint and, as far as I can tell, accuracy. On British matters, where I can tell, he tends to be slightly off-the-beam with the detail, but, more important, very much on-the-beam with the major issues. He sees the contradiction in Britain's belief that it could improve its "special" relations with America by remaining detached from European unity, to which U.S. policy was dedicated, with a clarity which unfortunately eluded successive British prime ministers.

  • Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is Chancellor of Oxford University, a former British Chancellor of the Exchequer and President of the European Commission, and the author, most recently, of Gladstone, A Biography, published in 1997.
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