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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 89-91

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John T. McNay, Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. 219 pp. $34.95.

In Acheson and Empire John McNay offers an argument that, while provocative, is not convincing. McNay contends that Secretary of State Dean Acheson's worldview "not only grew out of his Ulster heritage but also encouraged him to see international relations generally, and U.S. policy specifically, in terms derived from traditional British-style imperialism" (p.2). Using four case studies—Ireland, Kashmir, Iran, and Egypt—McNay continues that "Acheson unflaggingly supported the former imperial powers, especially Great Britain, in policy matters with colonialist implications" (p.4). As a result, Acheson angered nationalist movements abroad and severely damaged America's broader foreign policy concerns. McNay concludes that the secretary of state's foreign policy was not based, as scholars have contended, on a realistic assessment of the way the world was; instead, it was based on an idealistic desire to promote an imperialist-style world of days gone by.

This is an interesting argument. McNay develops his thesis through extensive archival [End Page 89] and secondary research. He demonstrates that, almost without fail, Acheson supported Britain's policies, often in the face of strong opposition from his subordinates. He writes well and keeps the reader's attention.

Where McNay falters is in the dichotomy he assumes between "realism" and "idealism" and in his contention that Acheson was strictly an idealist. Realism and idealism are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts. It is possible to be both an idealist and a realist at the same time. Woodrow Wilson is a case in point. Wilson's desire in 1918 to create a postwar order based on democratic ideals and free market economics can be considered idealistic; yet it was also based on a realistic assessment that the United States by that time would play an important role in the world. Wilson rightly understood that such a world order would benefit America's interests.

Acheson's support for British influence abroad can be viewed in a similar light. McNay suggests that the secretary of state's backing of European colonialism was so strong that he would have championed the efforts of Britain or other European powers to maintain their empires even if the danger posed by the Soviet Union had not existed. With the exception of Iran, McNay seems to lose sight of the Soviet threat when discussing each case study. For instance, with regard to the Kashmir dispute, he fails to mention U.S. suspicions of India because of its neutralist foreign policy and its recognition of Communist China; conversely, the United States leaned in favor of Pakistan because the government in Islamabad regarded both the Soviet Union and China as threats. In the case of Iran McNay states that it was U.S. officials in that country, such as the American ambassador, Henry Grady, who were the realists, since they understood that Acheson's desire to prop up the British would only push the Iranians into Moscow's arms. London's position, wrote Grady, was "inconsistent" with the Anglo-American effort "to stem Communist and Soviet aggression" (p.151)

In reality, Acheson was deeply concerned that countries such as Iran would move into the Soviet orbit. Because Washington could not contain Communism everywhere, it had to have the help of its allies. U.S. officials regarded certain parts of the world, including the Middle East, as traditional areas of British interest. The U.S. government wanted Britain to maintain a sphere of influence that would free American resources for use elsewhere. McNay ignores this point, arguing instead that Acheson's policy simply was one of "following the British lead in traditional spheres of British influence" (p.124). America's need for British help became even more vital following North Korea's attack on South Korea in June 1950; yet McNay does not adequately address the issue. In light of what appeared to be increasingly...