The Book Club

Fareed Zakaria and Eric Alterman


We’re slated, so to speak, to discuss James Chace’s new biography of Dean Acheson, a book I thoroughly enjoyed.

I’m biased to begin with. I think Acheson was probably the most important secretary of state of the 20th century. He was one of the handful of American statesmen who presided over a world destroyed by World War II and out of that rubble created a structure that helped restore prosperity and peace to Western Europe, set Japan and Germany of a democratic course, contained the power and influence of the Soviet Union, and did all this in a sober sensible manner, steering between the cries of rollback on the one hand and accommodation on the other. The results of this grand strategy–adopted in some form by every president from Truman to Reagan–are all around us. Of course he made mistakes, but compared with any other great power in its prime, the U.S. comes off pretty well in this period–and in large measure because of “the Acheson Gang.”

One of the things I particularly like about Acheson is that he combined high intelligence and integrity. As a young man, in the early 1930s, he was appointed Acting Secretary of the Treasury and could easily have become secretary. But he thought that Franklin Roosevelt wanted to do something for which he did not have proper legal authority–the details are dull. The Attorney General ruled that it was perfectly legal, but Acheson decided that there was only one course open to him–and he resigned.

Even when wrong, Acheson’s character comes through. When Alger Hiss began to be accused–at the time only on hearsay–of being a communist, even though they were not close friends, Acheson’s instinct was “not to throw rocks at him when he is in trouble.” He later quoted from the Sermon on the Mount to explain his position–“I was in prison and ye came unto me”–and even though it caused a furor and almost cost him his job, he never budged.

Can you imagine any cabinet officer today behaving like this?