In Dean Acheson's 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of his years in the State Department (1941-1953), Present at the Creation, he wrote, "In a sense, the postwar years were a period of creation, for the ordering of which I shared with others some responsibility." Historian James Chace demonstrates in his outstanding biography, Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, that as Under Secretary and then as Secretary of State, Acheson was the prime mover behind major U.S. foreign policy initiatives in this period when a "new world" was being created. Chace considers Acheson "the most important figure in American foreign policy since John Quincy Adams," and his book meticulously details why this is so.
As Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Acheson faced many challenges. He played a key role in clarifying the language of the Lend-Lease agreement between the U.S and Great Britain, led the State Department's delegation to the Bretton Woods conference where the International Monetary and the World Bank were agreed on, skillfully crafted the Truman Doctrine, and began work on the studies that led to the proposal for a Marshall Plan to assist Europe economically. All of these endeavors required doing a super sales job on Congress.
During his tenure as Secretary of State, he pushed for the security pact which later became known as NATO. In 1950 he and the President decided "to treat the North Korean aggression as a local war" and thus "established a Cold War precedent for fighting a limited war rather than a general war." Acheson backed Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur for exceeding his authority during the Korean War. And Acheson was "never more masterful" than when he spent seven days before Senate committees defending administration policy in that matter. Decisions on China, the unification and/or division of Germany, how to assist Japan, and many other policy matters were made which shaped the way much of the world developed for decades. Acheson and State Department employees were attacked mercilessly during this period by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others for alleged disloyalty and "losing China."
The key to Acheson's achievements - and the administration's - was that, unlike some other presidents, President Truman did not want to run foreign policy from the White House. Instead, he wanted "respect, consultation, and the right to make final decisions. Acheson understood this and never failed to provide him with the personal touches that Truman craved."
Acheson was not and ideologue but "an intensely pragmatic man, impatient with abstractions." Although he became strongly anti-Communist, he did not have a grand design. After leaving office, his advice was sought by other presidents, Kennedy, Johnson, and even Richard Nixon, who had been one of Acheson's most vociferous critics.
Chace's superb study helps to view the private person as well as the public figure, detailing Acheson's early career as a law clerk and the influential relationships in his life, including those with friends and family. Acheson is absorbing reading about an extraordinary, if, at times, controversial, public servant who helped to chart the way through the uncertain foreign policy waters at a crucial point in our history.
Roger Bishop is a monthly contributor to BookPage.