Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War By Robert L. Beisner (Oxford University Press, 768 pp., $35)
"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." The speaker could have been Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton. In fact, it was George W. Bush, in his second inaugural address; and what he said is what historians will probably remember as the Bush Doctrine. This poses a serious challenge for Democrats. What do you do when Republicans steal your principles?
You can yell, "Stop, thief!"--but that's not likely to be very effective. You can deny that you ever held those principles--but then you have sold out what you stand for. You can acknowledge that you once held those principles, but that now that your opponent has endorsed them, you are compelled to abandon them--but that would be to surrender to partisanship, even to pettiness. You can question your opponent's sincerity, claiming that he doesn't really mean what he has said--but there is every reason to believe that he does. Or you can say, "Delighted you've come to see it our way."
Democrats so far have tried all of the above, except the last. This is short-sighted, because political parties in the United States have always appropriated each other's ideas. Jeffersonian Democrats started out as a states' rights party, but took over the Hamiltonian Federalists' view that there should be a strong central government to ensure national security. Lincoln Republicans re-affirmed the Jeffersonian commitment to liberty, while insisting that the Democrats' toleration of slavery was inconsistent with it. Progressive, New Deal, and Great Society Democrats embraced the Lincoln Republicans' principle of social justice, while noting that Republican policies for decades after the Civil War had fallen far short of it. Formerly isolationist Republicans converted to Roosevelt's internationalism during World War II, while arguing that they could make that strategy work more effectively. Clinton-era Democrats endorsed Republican calls for fiscal restraint and welfare reform, while claiming that they could implement these with greater compassion. So when Bush, in the aftermath of September 11, evoked the Jeffersonian idea of a world free from tyranny and the Wilsonian idea of a world safe for democracy, he was doing nothing radical or unprecedented: he was well within the tradition of American two-party politics.
It's strange, then, that so many Democrats today are outside this tradition. They have responded to the first Republican president to have become a liberal interventionist by quivering--and blogging--with rage. They have offered no plan for building on the Bush Doctrine and moving on. It's as if they're imitating the Republicans of the 1930s, who quivered with rage at Roosevelt (blogging had not been invented yet) while neglecting his warnings about tyrants, as well as his vision of what a world without them might be.
The fall of France and the attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the Republican Party into expanding its horizons. In the years that followed, leaders such as Wendell Willkie, Arthur H. Vandenberg, Thomas E. Dewey, and Dwight D. Eisenhower showed that Republicans could agree with Democratic presidents on the fundamental objectives of national security strategy, even as they criticized specific practices and proposed constructive alternatives. They appropriated Democratic principles, and thereby rescued their party from the extinction it might otherwise have brought upon itself. Five years after the shock of September 11, despite ample evidence that the Bush administration's practices have fallen short of its principles, today's Democrats have produced few such leaders; and as the fate of Joe Lieberman suggests, their party seems bent on expelling the ones they have.
There are younger Democrats, however, for whom September 11 has been what Pearl Harbor was to the Republican internationalists: a wake-up call for a party in need of a larger vision. Still mostly in their twenties and thirties, still predominantly students and staffers, they are not yet in a position to lead. But they are organizing for that day, and one of their goals is to regain credibility for Democrats on the biggest issue on which Republicans still retain public confidence: what it will take to keep this country safe. That will require, they understand, moving beyond claims that the chief danger confronting the nation resides not in the mountains of Pakistan or Afghanistan, or in the weapons laboratories of Iran and North Korea, or among suicidal Islamists devising increasingly innovative ways to blow themselves and us up, but rather in the Oval Office itself. The young Democrats' call to arms is Peter Beinart's recent book The Good Fight, with its reminder that it was the liberals of the late 1940s who devised the grand strategy that won the Cold War; and their agenda appears in the Progressive Policy Institute's recent report With All Our Might, which features a fierce, flag-waving Uncle Sam on the cover. Their organization bears the name of a hawkish Democratic hero: it is called the Truman National Security Project.
For a president who left office less popular than Bush is now, Truman's reputation has been remarkably buoyant. Historians long ago awarded him "near-great" status. Politicians from both parties have praised his tough, decisive, visionary leadership. This once-controversial president is now enshrined in consensus, so it's no accident that the Bush Doctrine sounds a lot like the Truman Doctrine, which made it the policy of the United States "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Or that today's farsighted Democrats, in search of a usable past upon which to build their party's future, have made Truman their role model.
Dean Acheson, Truman's fourth and longest-serving secretary of state, expressed his own respect for his former boss when he dedicated his memoir in 1969 to "the captain with the mighty heart." With characteristic deftness, however, Acheson preceded this tribute with the now-famous quotation from Alphonso X of Spain that gave the book its title: "Had I been present at the creation I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe." It was a sly way for Acheson to remind his readers that he had indeed been present at the creation of the Truman grand strategy, and that he had not hesitated to provide recommendations for--even to insist upon--its "better ordering."
To be sure, as Truman said and as others have repeated a thousand times, the buck stopped with him. But Acheson's memoir tactfully intimates--and Robert L. Beisner's fine and long-awaited biography of Acheson now confirms--that the ideas did not start with Truman, and the strategy was not designed by Truman. In most instances, the president followed his advisers' advice. In this he differed from Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan, all presidents who originated their own grand strategies and imposed them on their subordinates.
So who did shape strategy in the Truman administration? George F. Kennan has the best claim conceptually: it was he who showed that Stalin's Soviet Union required a hostile outside world to sustain its internal legitimacy, and who pointed the way toward "containing" that danger without the need for war or appeasement. Beisner makes the case, though, that it was Acheson who planted Kennan's thinking in Truman's mind, who won domestic support for it, and who persuaded allies of its logic and its feasibility. Kennan, he maintains, could never have accomplished these things; his intellectual brilliance was undeniable, but his political skills were minimal. Acheson, by contrast, was one of the most effective negotiators, facilitators, manipulators, and instigators ever to operate in Washington. It was he, Beisner argues, who largely secured for Truman the reputation he has now.
Beisner's is by no means the first biography of Acheson: Gaddis Smith, David McLellan, Douglas Brinkley, and James Chace have written well-regarded ones, and Acheson's own memoir sprawls over some seven hundred pages. But Beisner's biography is the first to focus closely on the Truman-Acheson relationship, and to evaluate in detail Acheson's performance as secretary of state. There is probably too much detail: Beisner's six hundred and fifty pages of text, which draw more extensively than any other book on the documentary record of the years between 1949 and 1953, suggest that he feared some posthumous but scathing rebuke from his subject if he left anything out. That is unfortunate, because the size of the book obscures its sharpness. It requires persistence, but it rewards it.
Born in 1893, Acheson was the son of a Connecticut bishop. He was educated at Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law School; he became a protege of Holmes, Brandeis, and Frankfurter, and a partner in a distinguished Washington law firm. He was an immodest man with an acerbic tongue, a splendid wardrobe, and the most imposing mustache of the mid- twentieth century--this ornament was itself, James Reston observed, "a triumph of policy planning." Acheson's personality was "so glaring," Beisner writes, that "it is nearly impossible to imagine his being appointed to high office in our own times."
It's surprising, therefore, that Acheson functioned as well as he did in the rough-and-tumble of post-World War II politics, and even more so that he bonded with an unprepared, accidental, insecure president. Truman was the last occupant of the White House to have attended no college at all. But Acheson understood, as Kennan did not, that if you want to lead, you have to adjust to the environment in which you find yourself. You cannot wait for it to adjust to you. And Acheson did this masterfully.
Some of his flexibility came from a lesson that Acheson learned early in his career: as Roosevelt's undersecretary of the treasury in 1933, he opposed a dubious presidential plan to inflate the price of gold, and FDR promptly fired him. Some of it reflected the influence of Holmes, who preferred experience over fixed principles as a guide to action. Some of it grew out of Acheson's enthusiasm for gardening: a skill that requires patience, sensitivity, and constant care, but that if practiced successfully holds out the reward of growth in desired directions. By the time Truman took office, Acheson had become a political horticulturalist.
The new president, full of energy but lacking direction, was badly in need of one. Roosevelt had left no instructions. His advisers clamored for Truman's attention, but could not agree on what to recommend. Truman, in turn, tried to appear decisive but had little beyond instinct to guide him. The result was disarray, nowhere more so than with respect to the Soviet Union. On bad days Truman could insist that Stalin respected only force and would violate any agreement made with him. On good days he could see in the Soviet dictator the spirit of his old mentor Tom Pendergast, the Kansas City political boss, a man you could trust because he would keep his word. The administration's actions reflected the president's uncertainty: if there was a consistent Soviet strategy during Truman's first year in office, it was flip-flopping.
Acheson himself, Beisner shows, was a belated cold warrior. As late as spring 1946, he still favored negotiations with the Soviet Union, so much so that J. Edgar Hoover thought him a security risk. What changed Acheson's mind-- irrevocably--was not Kennan's "long telegram" or Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, but Stalin's demand for control of the Turkish Straits. Sensing that Truman was ready to draw the line, Acheson, now serving as undersecretary of state, made sure that it was a sharp one. The United States should risk war if necessary to defend Turkey, he insisted; otherwise the entire Near East and Middle East might fall within a Soviet sphere of influence. Truman bought the argument, Stalin backed down, and Acheson's influence at the White House rose accordingly.
He then cemented it by meeting a train. The November elections produced a Republican Congress for the first time since the Hoover administration. Truman returned to Washington in disgrace, to find only Acheson waiting when his train pulled into Union Station. Being there was an act of kindness, but Beisner suggests that it was perhaps also a matter of calculation. Whatever Acheson's motives, his action left Washington full of people who would later kick themselves for not meeting that train that day. And it forged a friendship unlike any that Truman would have with his other advisers--one that would last for the rest of the two men's lives.
Truman had no shortage of capable subordinates: Kennan, Marshall, Forrestal, Harriman, Lovett, McCloy, Clifford, and Nitze were hardly lightweights. But none nurtured Truman as carefully as Acheson did. That task required delicacy, because the president bristled when patronized and guarded his prerogatives jealously. Like a British monarch, he expected to be consulted even when--as was usually the case--he had no ideas of his own to offer. Beisner demonstrates Acheson's mastery of this art, as well as his ability to recover when Truman strayed into unpredictability or startled the nation--at times also friendly foreign governments--with his flinty candor. Having learned his lesson with FDR, Acheson was not going to go at odds with his successor. But still there were opportunities for creative gardening.
Acheson defined those opportunities broadly. The task facing the Truman administration, he recalled in his memoir, had been "just a bit less formidable than that described in ... Genesis." God's task was "to create a world out of chaos; ours [was] to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process." That meant convincing a country still largely isolationist in its instincts that it should take on permanent international responsibilities.
One way of doing this was to dramatize: Acheson learned that he could win arguments by swooping alarmingly through space and time. As his warning about Turkey in 1946 suggests, it was he, not Eisenhower, who invented the domino theory--if that country went, so would everything else in the region. And although it may have been a stretch to claim that the Soviet-American confrontation had no parallel since the days of Athens and Sparta, or Rome and Carthage, the analogies resonated with the president, who was an ancient-history buff--and they caused jaws to drop and eyes to bulge among skeptical journalists and parsimonious legislators. It was Acheson who inspired the Truman Doctrine: the president's speech to Congress in March 1947 had the specific purpose of securing $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey, but Acheson persuaded him to link the fate of "free peoples" everywhere to the outcome of the vote.
Exaggeration was not Acheson's only method of advocacy. He could speak quietly and reason closely, as when he assured congressmen that the Truman Doctrine did not promise protection everywhere and all at once against "armed minorities" and "outside pressures": interests and capabilities would determine how, where, and when the United States acted. A tireless spokesman for the Marshall Plan, Acheson carefully tailored his arguments to his audiences. Beisner describes him pulling off his jacket on a hot day, rolling up his sleeves, and improvising an explanation for Mississippi farmers of how they could do well for themselves (cotton exports) by helping Europe (through economic recovery) to hold back a potential aggressor (the Soviet Union) that might be as dangerous as the ones just vanquished (Germany and Japan).
The ease with which Acheson combined such justifications, qualifications, and simplifications made Kennan and other advisers nervous, but it was just what the president needed to focus his own thinking, and convey it within the government, and convince the country of its merits. Truman's first year of cohabitation with a Republican Congress turned out to be the most fruitful of the entire Cold War in building a bipartisan foreign policy. It was largely Acheson, the political horticulturalist, who made it so.
Acheson left the State Department in the summer of 1947 to recoup his finances, but the triumphantly reelected Truman called him back in 1949 to become secretary of state--no doubt with the expectation that he would continue to be as effective. In some ways he was. He played a major role in persuading the European victims of Nazi Germany that it was better to rehabilitate and rearm West Germany than to punish it. He was equally instrumental in convincing Americans of the need to protect, through NATO, what was left of Europe. He was relentlessly multilateral, deferring repeatedly to the wishes of allies while keeping the overall shape of NATO within range of what the United States wanted. Beisner tells of one late-night drafting session in which, after the exhausted British and French foreign ministers had gone to bed, Acheson took it upon himself to represent their positions as well as his own; they awoke the next morning satisfied with the results.
The new secretary of state supported Truman's decision to build the hydrogen bomb, but worked hard to make sure that the United States would never need to use it. He brought military spending into line with foreign policy commitments, overcoming Truman's concerns about the budgetary implications as well as objections from Louis Johnson, arguably the worst secretary of defense ever. Although Acheson failed to anticipate China's intervention in the Korean War, he led the effort to keep the conflict limited and, in eight epic days of congressional testimony, skillfully deflated the war's inflated hero, General Douglas MacArthur, who was sacked by Truman in the spring of 1951. The following year, Acheson even talked the president out of authorizing a CIA coup, later famously re-authorized by Eisenhower, to overthrow the government of Jacobo Arbenz GuzmAn in Guatemala.
But for someone who greased wheels efficiently while in a subordinate position at the State Department, Acheson generated more than his share of friction when he actually got to run the place. Part of the problem, Beisner points out, was that he could not resist showing off. The results could be entertaining, as when a Polish journalist at a press conference complained of being mistaken for a representative of the Soviet news agency Tass. "I stand corrected," Acheson shot back. "Demi-Tass." But Acheson's barbs were too quick, too sharp, and too frequent; they left their targets nursing their wounds, Beisner tells us, "like paper cuts." Over time the resentments built up, and friends the administration needed began to drop away.
More serious difficulties arose when Acheson allowed loyalty to a friend-- not even a close one--to override common sense. Only months after taking office, he announced publicly that "I do not intend to turn my back upon Alger Hiss"-- despite having seen convincing evidence of Hiss's espionage. Nothing in Acheson's job description required him to say anything at all about this case. By appearing to defend Hiss, he wounded himself and gave ammunition to the administration's most vociferous critics, not least among them Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers. Truman rejected Acheson's offer to resign, but the president was left with a vulnerable secretary of state when he needed an impregnable one. And it was Acheson's own fault.
Another virtue that became a flaw was Acheson's belief in transparency. Once it became clear in the summer of 1949 that Chiang Kai-shek's government in China was about to collapse, the secretary of state tried to explain why by releasing more than one thousand pages of still-sensitive documents. Acheson hoped thereby to placate the State Department's critics while opening the way for diplomatic relations with the new government of Mao Zedong. It was a remarkably misguided decision, for the "White Paper" instead fueled the fury of the China Lobby, led to allegations that Acheson and his subordinates had sought to sabotage Chiang, and shut down approaches to Mao--who, as Chinese documents have shown, wasn't interested anyway.
Fortunately for Acheson, the even graver consequences of a similar gaffe did not become fully apparent until after his death. Speaking without a prepared text, he revealed in a speech at the National Press Club in January 1950 what the National Security Council had just decided secretly: that America's "defensive perimeter" did not include South Korea. It is now clear that Stalin and Mao read Acheson's speech and may well have concluded from it that they could safely approve Kim Il-Sung's request for permission to attack across the 38th parallel later that year. Beisner is careful not to claim that Acheson started the Korean War. Still, in his effort to be open with the American people, Acheson failed to consider who else might be listening.
Acheson gave every appearance of thriving on criticism, even when he had brought it upon himself. "Being vilified," he once commented, has "its stimulating aspects, and ... may even be good for the liver." But it can hardly have been good for the Truman administration. Never a shrinking violet, Acheson turned himself as secretary of state into an exotic plant: he became Truman's most controversial second-term appointment. He had worked out a strategy for containing the Russians, but he never quite devised one for containing himself.
How does it alter the Truman foreign policy legacy if it was Acheson, for better or worse, who chiefly shaped it? Beisner suggests an answer when he points out that, however hawkish he may have been, Acheson was not a "realist." He rejected the proposition, basic to realism as it is traditionally understood, that the internal makeup of states can be separated from their external behavior. It was not enough just to balance power in the postwar world: "it had become imperative," as Beisner summarizes Acheson's thinking, "to defend a civilization built on liberty against one founded in tyranny, and how societies organized themselves was at the root of the matter."
This put Acheson at odds with Kennan, who was never an enthusiast for reforming other societies. It also meant--to Kennan's frustration--that negotiations with regimes in need of reform could never be serious. Acheson frequently advocated negotiations, but only from "strength"--which for him was a receding horizon. The United States would have enough of it when the Soviet Union had none. NSC-68, the strategy review that Acheson orchestrated and Paul Nitze conducted early in 1950, stated explicitly that any settlement with the Soviet Union could only record "the progress which the free world will have made in creating a political and economic system in the world so successful that the frustration of the Kremlin's design for world domination will be complete." Or, as Acheson himself put it in a public speech that spring, "We are children of freedom. We cannot be safe except in an environment of freedom.. .. We believe that all people in the world are entitled to as much freedom, to develop in their own way, as we want for ourselves."
The problem with Acheson's strategy was its vagueness. He could not say-- because he did not know, and Beisner thinks he did not care--how long it would take, how much it would cost, and what compromises might corrupt it along the way. He could set the course, fuel the vessel, train the crew, and cultivate the captain, but he could not, Beisner acknowledges, envisage "the far shore.... To the end of his days, he was writing `build strength' on his prescription pad." It was all very Holmesian: prefer acting to brooding; learn from experience; distrust perfectionism; tolerate contradictions; don't look back; enjoy the trip even if you can't see where you are going; never let the bastards grind you down.
Beisner thinks that this anticipates Reagan: "like Acheson, the president who presided over the beginning of the end of the cold war believed in winning that contest." There is something in that: it is interesting that Nitze worked for both men. But Reagan really did believe in negotiation. Once strength had been built to his satisfaction, he was ready to talk to the Kremlin, even before there was anyone to talk to. And as his conversations with Gorbachev later revealed, Reagan was also a nuclear abolitionist. Acheson emphatically was not; he thought Kennan a fool for even suggesting such a thing. In retirement, Acheson advised threatening the use of nuclear weapons with such vehemence that he frightened John F. Kennedy, who stopped listening to him.
What Beisner does not say is how much Acheson anticipates George W. Bush. The president's national strategy statements seem modeled on NSC-68. His performance is under attack, but so was Truman's in his sixth year. Bush is stuck with a bloody insurgency in Iraq, but Truman and Acheson blundered into a bloody war with China. And Bush's rhetoric channels Acheson with eerie precision. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," the president argued in his second inaugural address. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."
So where does this leave young Democrats who are looking to Truman to guide their party's future? They could begin by reading Beisner on Acheson, a book that demythologizes Truman. It is important to have heroes, but it is also important to get them right; and Beisner does that. Young Democrats could also rethink their party's prejudice against plagiarism. This is indeed a bad idea when practiced by students, novelists, historians, journalists, and over- committed commencement speakers. But it can be a very good idea when practiced by political parties.
More than anything else, the borrowing of ideas--often without attribution--is what has spared the United States the proliferation of single-issue parties that so often paralyzes politics elsewhere. Political plagiarism makes big tents possible. If Reagan and Bush could borrow from Truman and Acheson, then it's hard to see why Democrats today should not borrow from Reagan and Bush. To say that nothing can be learned from an opponent's ideas is to claim infallibility for one's own, a pretension to which even Acheson never aspired.
The Bush administration, like the Truman administration, has given its supporters much to apologize for and its critics much to denounce. It is from those gifts, which reflect the recalcitrance of reality when strategy tries to shift it, that the Democrats will again rise as the Republicans once did. The only question is how long it will take Democrats to remember how to do this.
John Lewis Gaddis teaches history and grand strategy at Yale. He is the author, most recently, of The Cold War: A New History (Penguin).
This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.