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  • The Dean of American Diplomacy
  • Robert Jervis (bio)
Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World. By James Chace. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, 512 pp. $30.00.

Many a current or former student will be cheered to read the Rector of Groton’s report on Dean Acheson: “Irresponsible. Forgets books. Does not remember lessons. Makes excuses. Not quite straightforward. Black marks show conduct not satisfactory. Should have stiff reprimand from home....The masters find him disagreeable to teach at times....He is full of immature prejudices.”

Writing a biography of Acheson is both easy and hard. Easy, because his life and times were so interesting and stories like the one quoted above abound. Hard, not only because his is the story of American foreign policy in the crucial middle third of the century but becausehe himself has told it so well in his own books. Chace’s subtitle, The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, is only a slight exaggeration. Acheson had unparalleled influence over American foreign policy at a time when it, and the world, was in great flux; when many alternative paths were open; and when American [End Page 238] policy would have enormous influence on international politics. Although Truman came to office with strong instincts and a sense of history, he relied on his top foreign policy advisors more than any other president, with the probable exception of the current incumbent and the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson. Acheson, who became secretary of state in 1948, after having served with a brief interruption in high State Department positions since early 1941, was rarely overruled by Truman. While this was true in part because Acheson was carefully attuned to what the president wanted and was cognizant of the wide range of pressures, both domestic and foreign, that bore down on Truman, on many occasions he was given wide latitude in his decision-making and could have convinced the president to adopt any number of courses of action.

Acheson could not mechanistically follow the dictates of the international system. The post-World War II situation was not only frightening, it was frighteningly new. American political traditions offered little guidance, or at least little that was helpful; recent history taught a number of lessons but could hardly point the way to building a new world. The interlinked problems of a prostrate Europe, a moribund world economy, new weapons of unprecedented destruction, and a powerful, alien, and enigmatic Soviet Union made policymaking a difficult task. Moreover, the profusion of disparate foreign policy suggestions, ranging from isolation to world government, from preventive war to disarmament, from seeking prosperity in home markets and the Western hemisphere to drawing the entire world into an open economy made such quandaries apparent.

Policies that are adopted often seem obvious in retrospect, especially when they produce at least a modicum of success. But those policies were not necessarily obvious at the time, and sometimes the choices of a particular individual played a definitive role. It is far from clear that such essentials of the containment policy as the Truman Doctrine and NATO would have been put in place without Acheson.

This is not to suggest—and Chace does not—that Acheson acted alone. He had an exceptionally strong group of assistants, of whom George Kennan is the best known, though perhaps not the most important. Understanding their views and roles is an important task, but in a biography of Acheson it is probably not reasonable to expect more than a few brief sketches. Chace provides a bit more about the other cabinet officers, especially George Marshall: a man who, as both secretary of state and secretary of defense, was loyal to the president, highly competent, and self-effacing. Chace also analyzes Louis Johnson who, as secretary of defense, infuriated Acheson and others [End Page 239] by displaying theopposite characteristics.

Truman, of course, was central to the story. But Chace’s view of him is a bit unclear, I think for the good reason that the man himself was quite complex. Chace is correct to argue that “unlike Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Nixon, Truman did not want to make foreign policy from the White...

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