Dean Acheson

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Acheson sworn into office as Secretary of State, with Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, (January 21, 1949) Photograph of Dean Acheson taking the oath of office as Secretary of State in the Oval Office, with Chief Justice... - NARA - 200076.jpg
Acheson sworn into office as Secretary of State, with Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, (January 21, 1949)

Later, in 1945, Harry S. Truman selected Acheson as the Undersecretary of the United States Department of State; he retained this position working under Secretaries of State Edward Stettinius, Jr., James F. Byrnes, and George Marshall. And, as late as 1945 or 1946 Acheson sought détente with the Soviet Union. In 1946, as chairman of a special committee to prepare a plan for the international control of atomic energy, he wrote the Acheson–Lilienthal report. At first Acheson was conciliatory towards Joseph Stalin.

The Soviet Union's attempts at regional hegemony in Eastern Europe and in Southwest Asia, however, changed Acheson's thinking. From this point forward, one historian writes, "Acheson was more than 'present at the creation' of the Cold War; he was a primary architect." [12] [13] Acheson often found himself acting secretary during the secretary's frequent overseas trips, and during this period he cemented a close relationship with President Truman. Acheson devised the policy and wrote Truman's 1947 request to Congress for aid to Greece and Turkey, a speech which stressed the dangers of totalitarianism rather than Soviet aggression and marked the fundamental change in American foreign policy that became known as the Truman Doctrine. [14]

Acheson designed the economic aid program to Europe that became known as the Marshall Plan. Acheson believed the best way to contain Stalin's Communism and prevent future European conflict was to restore economic prosperity to Western Europe, to encourage interstate cooperation there, and to help the U.S. economy by making its trading partners richer.

On June 30, 1947, Acheson received the Medal for Merit from President Truman. [15]

Acheson (fifth from right) as the Secretary of State, with the meeting of Truman cabinet, (August 25, 1950) Photograph of President Truman with members of his Cabinet and other officials, in the Cabinet Room of the White... - NARA - 200610.jpg
Acheson (fifth from right) as the Secretary of State, with the meeting of Truman cabinet, (August 25, 1950)

In 1949, Acheson was appointed secretary of state. In this position he built a working framework for containment, first formulated by George Kennan, who served as the head of Acheson's Policy Planning Staff. Acheson was the main designer of the military alliance NATO, and signed the pact for the United States. The formation of NATO was a dramatic departure from historic American foreign policy goals of avoiding any "entangling alliances."

The White Paper Defense

During the summer of 1949, after the unexpected Democratic victory in the 1948 elections did not quiet the question "Who Lost China?", Acheson had the State Department produce a study of recent Sino-American relations. The document known officially as United States Relations with China with Special Reference to the Period 1944–1949, which later was simply called the China White Paper , attempted to dismiss any misinterpretations of Chinese and American diplomacy toward each other. [16] Published during the height of Mao Zedong's takeover, the 1,054 page document argued that American intervention in China was doomed to failure. Although Acheson and Truman had hoped that the study would dispel rumors and conjecture, the documents helped to convince many critics that the administration had indeed failed to check the spread of communism in China. [17]

Korean War

Acheson's speech on January 12, 1950, before the National Press Club [18] did not mention the Korea Peninsula and Formosa (Taiwan) as part of the all-important "defense perimeter" of the United States. Since the war in Korea broke out on June 25, just a few months later, critics, especially in South Korea, took Acheson's statements to mean that the United States support for the new Syngman Rhee government in South Korea would be limited and that the speech provided Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung with a "green light" to believe the U.S. would not intervene if they invaded the South. [19] [20] As Soviet archives opened in the 1980s, however, research found that the speech had little if any impact on Communist deliberations. [21]

The "loss of China" attacks

With the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, that country switched from a close friend of the U.S. to a bitter enemy—the two powers were at war in Korea by 1950. Critics blamed Acheson for what they called the "loss of China" and launched several years of organized opposition to Acheson's tenure; Acheson ridiculed his opponents and called this period in his outspoken memoirs "The Attack of the Primitives". Although he maintained his role as a firm anti-communist, he was attacked by various anti-communists for not taking a more active role in attacking communism abroad and domestically, rather than hew to his policy of containment of communist expansion. Both he and Secretary of Defense George Marshall came under attack from men such as Joseph McCarthy; Acheson became a byword to some Americans, who tried to equate containment with appeasement. Congressman Richard Nixon, who later as president would call on Acheson for advice, ridiculed "Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment". This criticism grew very loud after Acheson refused to "turn his back on Alger Hiss" when the latter was accused of being a Communist spy, and convicted of perjury for denying he was a spy. [22]

Attitude towards Southeast Asians

In 1975, former U.S. Ambassador to Burma, Edwin W. Martin, accused Acheson of Eurocentrism and of making derogatory comments about Southeast Asians. [23]

Later life and death

The Gravesite of Dean Acheson in Oak Hill Cemetery. Grave of Dean Acheson - Oak Hill Cemetery - 2013-09-04.jpg
The Gravesite of Dean Acheson in Oak Hill Cemetery.

He retired on January 20, 1953, the last day of the Truman administration, and served on the Yale board of trustees along with Senator Robert A. Taft, one of his sharpest critics. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1955. [24]

Acheson returned to his private law practice. Although his official governmental career was over, his influence was not. He was ignored by the Eisenhower administration but headed up Democratic Policy Groups in the late 1950s. Much of President John F. Kennedy's flexible response policies came from the position papers drawn up by this group.

Acheson's law offices were strategically located a few blocks from the White House and he accomplished much out of office. He became an unofficial advisor to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, he was dispatched by Kennedy to France to brief French President Charles de Gaulle and gain his support for the United States blockade. Acheson so strongly opposed the final decision merely to blockade that he resigned from the executive committee. [25]

During the 1960s, he was a leading member of a bipartisan group of establishment elders known as The Wise Men, who initially supported the Vietnam War. As secretary of state, Acheson supported the French efforts to control Indochina as the necessary price for French support of NATO, and to contain communism. By 1968, however, his viewpoint had changed. President Johnson asked Acheson to reassess American military policy, and he decided that military victory was impossible. He advised Johnson to pull out as quickly as possible, to avoid a deepening division inside the Democratic Party. Johnson took Acheson's advice, in terms of de-escalating the war, and deciding not to run for reelection. Acheson distrusted Hubert Humphrey, and supported Richard Nixon for president in 1968. He provided advice to the Nixon administration through Henry Kissinger, focusing on NATO and on African affairs. He broke with Nixon in 1970 with the incursion into Cambodia. [26] [27]

In 1964, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with Distinction. In 1970, he won the Pulitzer Prize for History for his memoirs of his tenure in the State Department, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department . The Modern Library placed the book at #47 on its top 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century. [28]

At 6:00 p.m. on October 12, 1971, Acheson died of a massive stroke, at his farm home in Sandy Spring, Maryland, at the age of 78. His body was found slumped over his desk in his study. [29] Acheson was interred in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, DC. [30]

He had a son, David C. Acheson (father of Eleanor D. Acheson), and two daughters, Jane Acheson Brown and Mary Acheson Bundy, wife of William Bundy. [29]



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  1. "Dean Acheson". Oxford Learner's Dictionary . Archived from the original on October 30, 2012. Retrieved January 22, 2013.
  2. Beisner, pp. 79, 83
  3. Brennan, Elizabeth A., Clarage, Elizabeth C.Who's Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners, Greenwood, 1999, p. 290
  4. David S. McClellan, Dean Acheson: The State Department Years (1976) pp 8–12
  5. Mead, Frederick S., ed. (1921). Harvard's Military Record in the World War. Boston, Massachusetts: The Harvard Alumni Association. p.  21.
  6. Beisner (2006)
  7. Townsend Hoopes, "God and John Foster Dulles" Foreign Policy No. 13 (Winter, 1973-1974), pp. 154-177 at p 162
  8. Acheson explained his opposition to this plan, and described his experience as Treasury Undersecretary in the chapter "Brief Encounter — With FDR" in his 1965 memoir Morning and Noon (pp. 161–194).
  9. Perlmutter, Oscar William (1961). "Acheson and the Diplomacy of World War II". The Western Political Quarterly. 14 (4): 896–911. doi:10.2307/445090. JSTOR   445090.
  10. Irvine H. Anderson, Jr., "The 1941 De Facto Embargo on Oil to Japan: A Bureaucratic Reflex," The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 2. (May 1975), pp. 201–231. in JSTOR
  11. Jean Edward Smith, FDR (Random House, 2007), Kindle edition, 517.
  12. Randall Bennett Woods, "The Good Shepherd," Reviews in American History, Volume 35, Number 2, June 2007, pp. 284–288
  13. Beisner (1996)
  14. Frazier 1999
  15. "Citation Accompanying Medal for Merit Awarded to Dean Acheson". The American Presidency Project. June 30, 1947. Retrieved November 6, 2011.
  16. Robert Garson, "The United States and China since 1949," (1994) pp. 27–33
  17. Lewis McCarroll Purifoy, "Harry Truman's China Policy," (1976) pp. 125–150
  18. "Excerpts" . Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  19. "Eric Edelman on the Rise of Authoritarianism around the World".
  20. "Eric Edelman Transcript – Conversations with Bill Kristol".
  21. Matray (2002), p. 55.
  22. Robert Beisner (2009). Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War. Oxford UP. pp. 334, 349. ISBN   9780195382488.
  23. "I've heard him make remarks about people of Southeast Asia that I wouldn't want to repeat.", Oral History Interview with Edwin W. Martin, Washington, DC, June 3, 1975, Richard D. McKinzie,
  24. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
  25. Douglas Brinkley, Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71 (1992).
  26. Robert L. Beisner, Dean Acheson: a life in the Cold war (2009) pp 620-41.
  27. Gregory T. D'Auria, "Present at the rejuvenation: the association of Dean Acheson and Richard Nixon." Presidential Studies Quarterly 18 (1989): 393-412.
  28. Search for a Title or Author. "100 Best Nonfiction « Modern Library". Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  29. 1 2 "Dean Acheson Dies on His Farm at 78". The New York Times . October 13, 1971.
  30. Resting Places: The Burial Places of 14,000 Famous Persons, by Scott Wilson

Further reading

Dean Acheson
Dean G. Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State (cropped).jpg
51st United States Secretary of State
In office
January 21, 1949 January 20, 1953
External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Presentation by James Chace on Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, September 16, 1998, C-SPAN

Primary sources

Political offices
New office Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations and International Conferences
Succeeded by

as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs
Succeeded by

as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs
Preceded by
United States Under Secretary of State
Succeeded by
Preceded by
United States Secretary of State
Succeeded by