The Book Club

Not So Fast, Mr. Secretary

Dear Fareed,

You almost had me there with your kind words about Izzy Stone. Izzy was a friend and mentor to me. I have just spent a part of the past week wasting my time defending his reputation against professional red-baiters, Ron Radosh and David Horowitz on H-Diplo, the listserve for diplomatic historians. Since Izzy was always working beyond the mainstream consensus, I am a sucker for establishment types who give him his due.

Alas, Izzy would not forgive me if I let you get away with your, ahem, rose-colored view of the career and influence of Dean Acheson. What makes Acheson interesting–and makes it possible for you to say what you do without being entirely wrong–is that he behaved as if he were two people. With regard to the rejuvenation and rebuilding of Europe in the aftermath of the war, he was indeed progressive and far-sighted. His ability to see the forest for the trees, to cooperate with visionary statesmen like Jean Monnet to create peaceful, prosperous societies in Western Europe is an achievement that has few, if any, parallels in the history of twentieth-century American diplomacy. (Going back to the 19th century, he is still no match for J.Q. Adams.)   Let’s give credit to George Marshall too, but way to go, Dean-O.

That’s Europe. What about the rest of the world–the non-white part of it? Acheson ignored Latin America entirely. He consistently sided with the evil, racist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia against the freedom fighters there. His management of the Korean War was a disaster, regardless of the degree of credit you give his Press Club speech for helping to inspire it. He helped get the US embroiled in Vietnam because he did not have the nerve to stand up to the French who were unwilling to give up their colonial privileges. When they finally learned their painful lesson, Acheson urged his successors to make the very same mistake again. The cost in lives for his callous treatment of the non-white world is very high indeed.

Acheson’s relationship to McCarthyism is also a kind of double-helix. Yes, if you look at the published record, he was brave and principled. Few establishmentarians stood up to that drunken bully with the eloquence and dignity as your “Blade of Steel.” But the very fact of McCarthyism was, in some measure, a response to the hysterical anti-Communist rhetoric that Acheson himself used order to sell his expensive foreign policy to a parsimonious Congress. NSC-68, the document that Acheson oversaw to justify a four-fold increase in the defense budget, alleged that “the integrity of our system will not be jeopardized by any measures, covert or overt, violent or non-violent, which serves the purposes of frustrating the Kremlin design,” In other words, absolutely anything goes, in fighting Communism. So why complain if Joe McCarthy takes that a bit farther than sophisticated fellows would have liked?

Finally, at the end of his career, Acheson pretty much capitulated to the far-Right on every important issue. (Perhaps because he felt so wounded by the scars of McCarthyism.) Nevertheless, had John Kennedy taken his advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we might have experienced a nuclear war. Lyndon Johnson did take his advice in Vietnam and look what happened there. I’m only glad he wasn’t around when Henry Kissinger was trying to intervene in Rhodesia and Jimmy Carter was figuring out what to do about Central America. (With Ronald Reagan, I fear, he would have made no difference at all.)

Perhaps I am being overly harsh. But I repeat, there were sensible, respectable alternatives. Acheson, Chace writes, grew disenchanted with his former friend and aide, George Kennan, over the conduct of the Cold War and then proceeded to attack him personally when Kennan voiced his views in public.  He practically got into a fist-fight with Walter Lippmann at a Washington dinner party, because, Acheson said, Lippmann was “sabotaging” American foreign policy. What were both men’s crimes? They did not believe that the US had to fight every Communist on every battlefield the world over maintain our own freedom.

Kennan and Lippmann were right. Acheson was wrong. Nearly a hundred thousand Americans and many millions of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians died to prove this unhappy fact.

I trust you will do better when your time comes, Fareed. Perhaps I’ll write your biography when it’s over.