Department of State - A tale of two speeches

In early 1950, two speeches, one by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the other by Senator Joseph McCarthy, illustrated the tension between pragmatism and politics in the modern State Department. Acheson's 12 January address to the National Press Club, "Crisis in Asia," was a model of pragmatic policy analysis. Also known as the "defense perimeter speech," because it placed Korea beyond America's line of defense in the Pacific, this talk was quite perceptive. Noting "bewilderment" in the American reaction to the communist victory in China in 1949, Acheson detected "a failure to understand [the] basic revolutionary force which is loose in Asia" and explained that "the communists did not create this but they were shrewd and cunning enough to … ride this thing into victory and power." Such sophisticated, accurate, and timely analysis was precisely what State Department bureaucrats needed to provide to policymakers.

McCarthy's 9 February speech to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, advanced a strikingly different interpretation of what he labeled the "impotency" of U.S. policy. He charged that the United States had failed to prevent communist successes "because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation…. This is glaringlytrue in the State Department. There the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been most traitorous." In the senator's inflammatory rhetoric, the department's elitist past remained to haunt it in the frightening uncertainty of the early Cold War.

The staff analysis that went into the Press Club speech demonstrated State's bureaucratic expertise. Contrary to partisan complaints based upon distorted or nonexistent evidence, the level of patriotism, competence, and strategic toughness within the department was high, as exemplified by its shaping of NSC 68, the April 1950 program for militarized containment of global communism. State remained at the center of foreign policymaking in the 1950s, but damage to the department's credibility from McCarthy's excesses revealed the vulnerability of its expertise to political and ideological challenges.

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