Dean Acheson

Dean Acheson

Dean Acheson was born in Middletown, Connecticut, on 11th April, 1893. After being educated at Yale University (1912-15) and Harvard Law School (1915-18) he became private secretary to the Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis (1919-21).

A supporter of the Democratic Party, Acheson worked for a law firm in Washington before Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him as Under Secretary of the Treasury in 1933. During the Second World War Acheson served as Assistant Secretary in the Department of State.

In 1945 Harry S. Truman selected Acheson as his Under Secretary of State. Over the next two years Acheson played an important role in devising both the Truman Doctrine and the European Recovery Program (ERP). Acheson believed that the best way to halt the spread of communism was by working with progressive forces in those countries threatened by revolution. After becoming Secretary of State in 1949, Acheson and George Marshall, Secretary of Defence, came under increasing attack from right-wing politicians who considered the two men to be soft on communism.

On 9th February, 1950, Joe McCarthy made a speech at Wheeling where he attacked Acheson as "a pompous diplomat in striped pants". He claiming that he had a list of 250 people in the State Department known to be members of the American Communist Party. McCarthy went on to argue that some of these people were passing secret information to the Soviet Union. He added: "The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer - the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government we can give."

McCarthy had obtained his information from his friend, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). William Sullivan, one of Hoover's agents, later admitted that: "We were the ones who made the McCarthy hearings possible. We fed McCarthy all the material he was using."

Acheson also upset the right-wing when he took the side of Harry S. Truman in his dispute with General Douglas MacArthur over the Korean War. Acheson and Truman wanted to limit the war to Korea whereas MacArthur called for the extension of the war to China. Joe McCarthy once again led the attack on Acheson: "With half a million Communists in Korea killing American men, Acheson says, 'Now let's be calm, let's do nothing'. It is like advising a man whose family is being killed not to take hasty action for fear he might alienate the affection of the murderers."

In April 1951, Harry S. Truman removed GeneralDouglas MacArthur from his command of the United Nations forces in Korea. McCarthy called for Truman to be impeached and suggested that the president was drunk when he made the decision to fire MacArthur: "Truman is surrounded by the Jessups, the Achesons, the old Hiss crowd. Most of the tragic things are done at 1.30 and 2 o'clock in the morning when they've had time to get the President cheerful."

Acheson was the main target of McCarthy's anger as he believed Harry S. Truman was "essentially just as loyal as the average American". However, Truman was president "in name only because the Acheson group has almost hypnotic powers over him. We must impeach Acheson, the heart of the octopus."

Harry S. Trumandecided not to stand for president in 1952 and Acheson's close friend, Adlai Stevenson, was chosen as the Democratic Party candidate for the election. It was one of the dirtiest in history with Richard Nixon, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, leading the attack on Stevenson. Speaking in Indiana, Nixon described Stevenson as a man with a "Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's cowardly college of Communist containment."

The election campaign of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon was a great success and in November they easily defeated Adlai Stevenson by 33,936,252 votes to 27,314,922. Disillusioned by the smear campaign, Acheson returned to his private law practice. He also wrote several books on politics including Power and Diplomacy (1958), Morning and Noon (1965), Present at the Creation (1970) and The Korean War (1971).

Dean Acheson died at Sandy Spring, Maryland, on 12th October, 1971.

Primary Sources

(1) Dean Acheson, memo to Harry S. Truman (27th February, 1947)

A highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open up three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by the corruption of one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the East, Africa, Italy, France, etc. Not since Rome and Carthage has there been a polarisation of power on this earth.

(2) Dean Acheson, speech on China (1949)

The unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond our control. Nothing in this country did or could have done within reasonable limits could have changed that result. It was the product of internal Chinese forces. A decision was arrived at within China, if only a decision by default.

(3) William Manchester wrote about the defeat of Chiank Kai-shek in China in his book, The Glory and the Dream (1973)

Throughout the war the United Nations Big Four had been Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Chiang. Stalin's later treachery had been deplorable but unsurprising. Acheson's strategy to contain Red aggression seemed to burst wide open. Everything American diplomats had achieved in Europe - the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO - momentarily seemed annulled by this disaster in Asia.

(4) Joe McCarthy, speech at Wheeling (9th February, 1950)

The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer - the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government we can give.

While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.

(5) Edward Murrow, CBS radio broadcast from London (25th January 1950)

This morning Alger Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison for perjury. This afternoon the drama moved to Washington, to Secretary of State Acheson's press conference. The question was: "Mr. Secretary, have you any comment on the Alger Hiss case?" Mr. Acheson replied in these words: "Mr. Hiss's case is before the courts, and I think it would be highly improper for me to discuss the legal aspects of the case, or the evidence, or anything to do with the case. I take it the purpose of your question was to bring something other than that out of me." And then Mr. Acheson said, "I should like to make it clear to you that whatever the outcome of any appeal which Mr. Hiss or his lawyers may take in this case, I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss. I think every person who has known Alger Hiss, or has served with him at any time, has upon his conscience the very serious task of deciding what his attitude is, and what his conduct should be. That must be done by each person, in the light of his own standards and his own principles. For me," said Mr. Acheson, "there is very little doubt about those standards or those principles. I think they were stated for us a very long time ago. They were stated on the Mount of Olives, and if you are interested in seeing them, you will find them in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, beginning at Verse 34."

We are reliably informed that Secretary Acheson knew the question was coming but had not discussed his answer with President Truman because he regarded it as a personal matter. When Mr. Acheson was up for confirmation before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was questioned about Alger Hiss, said he was his friend and added, "My friendship is not easily given, and not easily withdrawn." He proved that today.

(6) Joseph McCarthy, speech in the Senate (14th June, 1951)

I realize full well, how unpopular it is to lay hands on the laurels of a man who has been built into a great hero. I very much dislike it, but I feel that it must be done if we are to intelligently make the proper decisions in the issues of life and death before us. If Marshall was merely stupid, the laws of probability would dictate that part of his decisions would serve America's interests.

Since Marshall resumed his place as major of the palace last September, with Acheson as captain of the palace guard and that weak, fitful, bad-tempered and usable Merovingian in their custody, the outlines of the defeat they mediate have grown plainer.

(7) Konrad Adenauer, Memoirs 1945-53 (12th July, 1952)

I was informed of a letter addressed to the French Foreign Minister, Schuman, by the American Secretary of State, Acheson, emphatically underlining the positive American attitude. The United States, he wrote, had given numerous proofs in declarations, measures and agreements, of the extent of its interest in Europe as well as of its support for European unity and of its desire for cooperation with Europe. Acheson said that he was convinced of the desire of the American people for this development to continue. If the French Government, in the spirit which spoke so distinctly from the Schuman Plan, worked out the main outlines of a plan to promote the further rapprochement of the free peoples of Europe in close contact with the governments of Germany and the other European countries prepared to participate in the common work, one was justified in the hopes that long-term solutions for many of the present political, economic and military problems might be found.

Acheson stressed in his letter that the United States administration gave its full and wholehearted support to European integration. If the European countries succeeded in uniting, this unity would provide a solid foundation for the building up of military and economic power. A centre of gravity would be created from which a free Europe could unfold its strength in order to defend its faith in its historic tradition successfully. A strong Europe was indispensable for the development of the free world and the realization of general security in the framework of the Atlantic community.