Statesman Dean Acheson (1893-1971) helped define American Cold War policy following World War II. A graduate of Yale University, Acheson joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration as undersecretary of the treasury in 1933. As undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Defense, he shaped the Truman Doctrine to support Greece and Turkey against the threat of Soviet expansion, and helped formulated what came to be the Marshall Plan for spurring economic revival in Europe. Named secretary of state by Harry S. Truman in 1949, Acheson promoted the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). His memoir, Present at the Creation, won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1970.
Always a controversial figure, Acheson, a lifelong Democrat, broke with the early New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt when that president took the United States off the gold standard. He returned to government at the outset of World War II and served in various high-level positions in the Department of State.
At the outset of the cold war, Acheson, now under secretary of state in Harry S. Truman’s administration, took charge of a White House briefing of congressional leaders on what became the Truman Doctrine. Until then, the legislators had not been overly impressed with the urgency of the need to pick up Great Britain’s role in supporting Greece and Turkey. The under secretary painted a stark picture of Soviet communism poised at the intersection of three continents, ready to spread through the Mediterranean area down into Africa, westward into Europe, and eastward into the Middle East. At the conclusion of his remarks, Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Truman he would support the plan if it was put to Congress in those terms.
Despite his key role in the development of the containment policy, Acheson quickly became the target for Republican criticism of Truman’s foreign policies. In part this was a reaction to Acheson’s personality—he could be devastatingly acerbic. Fed up with criticism of American commitments to Europe, Acheson described his antagonists as “re-examinists.” They reminded him, he said, of the farmer who pulled up his crops every morning to see how they were growing. But it was also a reaction to the twin setbacks of 1949: the Russians’ developing the atomic bomb and the “loss” of China to communist-led forces. Republicans merely took advantage of the national sense of malaise to attack the steward of American foreign policy. Acheson made matters worse with his statement that he would not turn his back on Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury in connection with charges that he had passed documents to Soviet agents in the 1930s. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy focused much of his attention on Acheson’s supposed role as protector of “card-carrying communists” in the Department of State, describing him as “this pompous diplomat in striped pants, with a phony British accent.”
Nevertheless, Acheson survived these attacks and with the passing of time became a figure much admired in conservative circles. In typical fashion, he titled his memoirs Present at the Creation, a reference to all that had been accomplished in establishing the cold war bastions of the West.
His defense of American foreign policy in the 1960s and his criticism of third world nations now put him at odds with liberal critics of the Vietnam War. He was never much in sympathy with revolutionaries, he said. Yet it was Acheson who advised President Lyndon B. Johnson in March 1968 that he must find a way out of the war. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said, had been leading the country down the primrose path with overly optimistic predictions. His controversial statements continued to the end of his life, when he defended Richard Nixon against press attacks. The national press, he insisted, simply must stop destroying presidents.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.