When Dean Acheson became U.S. secretary of state in early 1949 he hung in his office two portraits: one of John Quincy Adams, the other of Henry Stimson. These were significant choices. Adams, perhaps the greatest secretary of state in U.S. history, had conceived the first American empire but had warned his overzealous compatriots against going "abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Stimson, who had served as secretary of state for Herbert Hoover and became secretary of war (for the second time) under Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, had preserved Adams's imperial vision. Both men were among the best and brightest of their generations: Adams the scion of the famous political family, Stimson a partner in Elihu Root's law firm. And both men were dedicated to the service of their country, had a keen sense of right and wrong, and believed that gentlemen should behave honorably—as Stimson said, they did not read one another's mail. Dean Acheson believed these things too.
Acheson was born and raised in Connecticut. His father, Edward, was an Episcopal rector; his mother, Eleanor (Gooderham), was a grande dame with a sense of humor. Both were British subjects. Eleanor spoke with a British accent, and the family celebrated the queen's birthday. Thus was Acheson's Anglophilia instilled at an early age. He went to Groton and Yale, finishing both (Groton barely) without academic distinction. His Yale classmate Archibald MacLeish recalled that Acheson was "socially snobby with qualities of arrogance and superciliousness." Seriousness arrived in his second year at Harvard Law School, when he took a class with Felix Frankfurter. The law captured him, especially for its possibilities as training for government service. Frankfurter arranged a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
Acheson's career in government began in 1933, when he was named Roosevelt's treasury undersecretary. The appointment was short-lived. Acheson opposed FDR's plan to buy gold to shore up prices, and he was asked to resign that fall. But he had made himself known to Roosevelt's men, and early in 1941 Secretary of State Cordell Hull brought Acheson to the State Department as assistant secretary for economic affairs. Acheson quickly made his presence felt. He helped negotiate the lend-lease agreement with the British, into which, and despite his Anglophilia, he inserted a clause demanding an end to preferential economic arrangements within the British empire. Acheson also insisted on tightening an embargo on oil shipments to Japan. And after the United States had entered the war, he became one of the American architects of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both of which would do much to stabilize the economy of the capitalist nations following the war. When, in late 1944, Hull was replaced by Edward Stettinius, Acheson became assistant secretary of state for congressional relations and international conferences.
Acheson fortuitously had had a lengthy meeting with Truman two days before Roosevelt's death in April 1945. Truman made "a very good impression. He is straightforward, decisive, simple, entirely honest." He would "learn fast and inspire confidence." But Acheson was not at first moved to stay on in the government, and after seeing through to completion the drafting of the United Nations Charter, in midsummer he submitted to the president a letter of resignation. Truman and his new secretary of state, James Byrnes, refused to accept it. They wanted Acheson to stay in the administration and to promote him to undersecretary of state, second in command in the department. Acheson hesitated but finally agreed to return.
He was thrust immediately into the maelstrom. Byrnes was a clever politician but a poor administrator, and the volume of information flowing into the department, as well as the demands placed on its employees by the developing Cold War, threatened to overwhelm all of them. Acheson became the department's leading organizer and troubleshooter. Truman assigned him to the crucial task of finding a way to control atomic energy without sacrificing American security. His report, written with David Lilienthal and submitted in March 1946, was a sincere (if doomed) effort to accommodate Soviet concerns about the American nuclear monopoly by establishing an international agency to regulate the production of atomic energy. Yet Acheson found himself, along with his president, moving toward a tougher stance against the Soviet Union. If Stalin thought by early 1946 that his capitalist enemies were encircling him despite the reasonableness of his position, the view from Washington was different. U.S. policymakers came to believe that the Soviets would push and probe and stir up trouble anywhere they were not met with resistance, including potential military action. While the hallmark of American resolve was George Kennan's 1947 essay "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in which he called for the employment of "counterforce" against the Soviets "at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points," the Truman administration had in fact been pursuing an ad hoc version of this containment strategy since early 1946. Acheson was its lead author. It was he who wrote Stalin a stern note, delivered by Kennan, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from northern Iran. And it was Acheson who wrote the Truman administration's sharp response to the Soviet demand, in August 1946, that Turkey agree to a joint Russian-Turkish defense of the Dardanelles. Acheson's note, along with arrival in the area of a U.S. naval task force, caused the Soviets to back down.
Acheson also played a vital role in shaping the political and economic institutions of Truman's Cold War. In early 1947, with Byrnes out and George Marshall in as the secretary of state, the anticommunist governments of Turkey and Greece claimed to be under severe Soviet pressure and could not guarantee their own survival. Convinced that the United States must help the Turkish and Greek governments, the administration nevertheless faced the difficult task of persuading a fiscally careful Congress to provide the aid needed to shore up these governments. On 27 February, Truman called a meeting between administration officials and a handful of leading senators and members of congress in hopes of winning over the legislators. Acheson described this encounter as "Armageddon." Marshall spoke first, emphasizing the need for the United States to act because it was the right thing to do and because no one else would help. The legislators seemed unmoved. Was it America's fight? Was the bill likely to be enormous? Acheson asked to speak. Immediately he changed the terms of the debate. The crisis in southeastern Europe, he said, was no local dustup but one that involved the two Cold War powers. The Soviets were pressuring Turkey and Greece as they had pressured Iran. At stake was a vast portion of the free world, for if Greece went communist, "like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and Europe through Italy and France," which faced communist threats of their own. Only the United States stood in the way of a communist onslaught that would, if successful, snuff out freedom and destroy all hope of economic recovery in parts of three continents. The congressional leaders were impressed, and the pronouncement of the Truman Doctrine followed on 12 March, promising that the United States would fight communism everywhere.
The world's biggest problems remained economic, and the chief area of concern for Acheson, as always, was neither Iran nor Greece but western Europe. Policymakers in Washington believed that communism fed on economic distress; European nations were vulnerable to radicals promising the redistribution of wealth as a panacea for poverty. Economic aid from the United States—and in far greater magnitude than that proffered to Turkey and Greece—was essential to Europe's economic recovery, its revival as a market for U.S. exports, and its people's continued faith in democracy. Acheson said as much in a speech he gave in Cleveland, Mississippi, in early May 1947. His call for massive economic aid to Europe found its manifestation in the Marshall Plan, announced by the secretary of state at Harvard the following month. If the Truman Doctrine had made the strategic case for containment, the Marshall Plan was designed to give economic spine to American's closest friends and trading partners in western Europe. Once more, Acheson had played a crucial role in shaping the new policy.
Acheson had previously decided to leave the administration, and when he tendered his resignation effective 1 July 1947, Truman this time reluctantly let him go. He was, however, receptive when Truman, surprisingly victorious in the 1948 election, invited him to return to public life, this time as secretary of state.
The problems to which Acheson returned in January 1949 were even knottier than they had been when he had departed eighteen months earlier. Europeans and Soviets no longer doubted American resolve. But the Nationalist government of China was in the final stages of collapse; as Acheson remarked ruefully, he arrived back in service just in time to have it fall on him. There was not yet a peace treaty with Japan, and France's effort to return to power in its colony of Indochina had met with firm resistance from Vietnamese nationalists associated with communism. The Soviet Union would explode its first atomic bomb later that year. Above all, at least as far as Acheson was concerned, Europe remained dangerously unstable. The Italian and French governments turned over with distressing frequency, threatening Europe's stability and ultimately its solvency. Great Britain still depended on U.S. aid, and a slight U.S. recession in the spring of 1949 undermined the sterling pound and forced a new round of austerity on London. Germany remained divided, with Berlin under siege in the East and with the West, its capital at Bonn, a seeming out-post of Western interests thrust provocatively into the Soviet bloc, economically infirm and utterly defenseless. Here especially, thought Acheson, something had to be done.
Acheson addressed the problems systematically, blending a staunch anticommunism, a fervent faith in liberal capitalism, and a healthy measure of pragmatism. There was not much to be done about China: Chiang Kai-shek was plainly a loser and it would be necessary to "let the dust settle" following the communists' victory. Japan would have a peace treaty in 1952. Vexed by French behavior in Indochina but unwilling to weaken France further or cede more territory to what he construed as world communism, Acheson supplied some economic and military aid to the French-backed (read "puppet") government of Bao Dai in Vietnam. What Europe and especially West Germany needed was an infusion of confidence that the United States would come to the rescue in the unlikely event that the Soviet Union attacked. Working with the Europeans, Acheson helped fashion, in the spring of 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty, which created a group of like-minded nations committed to the proposition, as article 5 of the treaty put it, that "an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all." For Acheson the treaty was valuable as a morale boost for U.S. allies, as well as a means to permit, someday, the military restoration of (West) Germany under multilateral aegis.
Acheson had not spent much time thinking about Korea. His State Department predecessors, and the military, had already put into motion the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. In a speech in January 1950 Acheson described a U.S. "defense perimeter" in East Asia that incorporated various islands, among them the Philippines and Okinawa. It was possible to take from Acheson's words the implication that mainland Asian nations, including South Korea, fell outside the U.S. picket, though this was a strained interpretation; Acheson did say that the United States had "direct responsibility" for Korea. Certainly Acheson was naive to assume, as he told the Foreign Relations Committee, that South Korea "could take care of any trouble started by" the North. But no cold warrior of Acheson's type would have invited an attack on an ally, even one as troublesome as Syngman Rhee's South Korea. The proof of Acheson's commitment came in the last days of June, once Kim Il Sung had launched his offensive. Truman, closely advised by Acheson and the military, committed U.S. forces to the conflict, seeking UN support for this step afterward.
The Korean War would ultimately serve the ends of the containment strategy. The North Koreans, who were presumed by Acheson to be proxy soldiers for Moscow, were stopped. Still, Acheson's reputation suffered as a result of the war. Conservatives attacked him because he had not seen it coming. He would have, they argued, had he understood the implications of his do-nothing policy on China; his abandonment of Chiang had encouraged communists throughout Asia to think they could launch attacks with impunity. Republicans led by Senator Joseph McCarthy accused Acheson of appeasement or worse. He was part of a "crimson crowd," said McCarthy. Senator Hugh Butler exclaimed: "I look at that fellow. I watch his smart-aleck manner and his British clothes, and that New Dealism in everything he says and does, and I want to shout, 'Get out, Get out. You stand for everything that has been wrong with the United States for years!'"
Truman and Acheson could not achieve a truce in Korea. An armistice was signed only in July 1953, six months after Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles had succeeded them as the nation's chief cold warriors. Out of harness Acheson drifted. He wanted badly to have influence again on U.S. diplomacy. This was not possible in the Eisenhower administration: Acheson was tainted by his association with the humiliations of the United States in East Asia. In any case he disparaged the administration's reliance on nuclear weapons, a strategy dubbed "massive retaliation," and thought Dulles sanctimonious. Nor would Democrats embrace him. Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, thought Acheson irascible and controversial, and kept his distance. In Germany in 1957 Ambassador David Bruce, who was Acheson's friend, found the former secretary "devastating, clever, bitter and not constructive…. Dean is overfull of bile and it is sad."
John F. Kennedy, the Democrat who won the presidency in 1960, did consult with Acheson. Kennedy took Acheson's advice on cabinet appointments (Secretary of State Dean Rusk was Acheson's suggestion, though Acheson later regretted having made it) and the need to build NATO forces in Europe. Elsewhere Kennedy resisted Acheson's increasingly reflexive militancy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Acheson, a member of Kennedy's high-level ExCom, urged the president to bomb Soviet missile sites and was disgusted when JFK decided to interdict Russian ships instead, a tactic Acheson thought timid. As the war in Vietnam expanded, particularly under Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, Acheson found himself more and more in demand as an adviser. Johnson treated Acheson with deference. And Acheson's early position on Vietnam—that the United States had no choice but to fight until South Vietnam was preserved against a communist takeover—matched Johnson's.
Averell Harriman said in 1970: "Some people's minds freeze. Acheson's hasn't changed since 1952." That was unfair. While Acheson never lost his suspicion of the Soviet Union, and thus remained convinced of the necessity of containment, and while his contempt for his intellectual inferiors, especially those in Congress, remained undiminished, he came to see the Vietnam War as a waste of American power. Harriman himself, along with Undersecretary of State George Ball, made Acheson see by early 1968 that Vietnam was a peripheral Cold War theater. At a meeting of Johnson's Vietnam "wise men" on 25 March 1968, Acheson spoke bluntly and eloquently of the need for the administration to disengage from the conflict. Johnson, shaken, announced less than a week later that he would seek to negotiate with Hanoi. He added, almost as an afterthought, that he would not seek reelection in 1968 but would instead devote all his energy to finding a way out of the morass in Southeast Asia.
Acheson had come full circle. He had started his public career as a man of principle, demanding to see evidence that one policy choice was better than another, just as Felix Frankfurter and Louis Brandeis had taught him. His Cold War—like Stalin's, ironically—sprang from ideology tempered by pragmatism. There was assertiveness but no adventurism in the man who helped shape the United Nations, the Bretton Woods economic system, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. But the harsh criticism of conservatives inclined Acheson toward greater militancy and left him unable to resist the temptations of victory in Korea. Thereafter he grew increasingly sharp with those with whom he disagreed. That never changed. But the Vietnam War restored Acheson to his former view that the United States could not solve every world problem, especially not by military means. When Acheson died on 12 October 1971 he left a legacy worthy, in ambition and execution, of the two secretaries of state he admired most.