The Book Club

Acheson Stinks

Dear Fareed,

I am glad to see you admire Acheson so much. It will give us something to argue about.

Since this is not the Times, and we are not really reviewers, I think it only fair to readers to admit whatever connection we have to the author up front. I know James Chace because he’s editor of World Policy Journal and I am on the editorial board–which has never met, as far as I can tell–and am a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, its publisher. You know James for lots of reasons, I suspect, one of them being that you now hold the job that he once held at Foreign Affairs. I don’t imagine you ever met Dean Acheson, but we both know you are going to hold the job he used to hold at State. Given how far to the right this country is moving, no doubt it will be under a Democrat, Mr. Secretary.

Now on to Acheson. I agree he has a certain aristocratic charm, definite smarts, impressive personal integrity, and looks pretty good in light of what came later. But he was wrong on just about everything, usually because he feared telling the country the truth about what he was up to. And we are still paying the price for that today.

Acheson, quoted by Chace, noted that in order to gain support for a major policy, “qualification must give way to simplicity of statement, nicety and nuance to bluntness almost to brutality, in carrying home a point.” In stating things in terms “clearer than truth,” Acheson helped to let loose demons in this country that almost destroyed him.

Privately Acheson spoke of the Russians in traditional power political terms, but in the public arena, he used the same hysterical anti communist rhetoric that created the Frankenstein of Joe McCarthy–who almost destroyed him. He screwed up Korea terribly, giving a speech that implied we would not defend it and thereby almost inviting a Communist invasion, then reversing himself and advising and helping to direct a disastrous war. He allowed MacArthur to go beyond the 38th parallel, thereby inviting in the Chinese, and ultimately killing many hundreds of thousands of people to no apparent purpose. Together with Truman, he also purposely ignored both Congress and the Constitution in deciding to go to war. Personally, he was quite honorable, as you point out, in the Hiss case.

But it is “the Secretary of State who created the American world,” as Chace called him, who I assume we are discussing here. That guy screwed not only screwed up Korea, but allowed the French to sucker us into Vietnam. He refused to seriously consider the reunification of Germany, which Moscow appeared to want. He gave Kennedy bad, hawkish advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Johnson bad hawkish advice about Vietnam in 1965. Sure he was clever, but he was too clever by half.

Now before you start waving the red flag at me, let me be clear. I am not saying the Cold War was not necessary. Stalin was a bad man. He required a firm response in the late forties even though he was far more scrupulous in adhering to postwar accords than Truman was. (See Melvin P. Leffler, “Adherence to Agreements: Yalta and the Experiences of the Early Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 11, No. 1, Summer, 1986). But the Cold War did not need to be nearly as deadly and destructive as it turned out to be. It did not need to be fought down to the last Korean, Vietnamese or Cambodian peasant. It did not need to threaten civil liberties and free speech at home. That part was very much the fault of the Dean Achesons of the world. Acheson had plenty of opportunity to heed the warnings of quite respectable critics such as George Kennan and Walter Lippmann, conservative realists who turned out to be lonely prophets. They did not fall victim to the demagogic desire to speak in terms “clearer than truth.”

Secretary Albright recently said that of all the previous secretaries of state, she would pick Acheson as her model. I hope when your time comes you will show more discrimination and stick to John Quincy Adams. He set forth a timeless guide to U.S. foreign policy when he said of America: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

P.S. Did you watch Jerry Seinfeld on HBO last night? I saw it while I was finishing this book. I hated Seinfeld, but boy that guy was funny–funny in a universal kind of way. Made me glad to be an American. If only your Cold Warrior friends could have realized that we could have won the Cold War culturally with Elvis, the Beatles, Lucy, and Miles Davis, without wasting gazillions of dollars on weapons, CIA coups, and proxy wars in the Third World that created more Communists than they killed.