The Book Club

Put the Great Back in Great Power!

Dear Eric,

I think you overreacted. I didn’t accuse you of being anti-American. I did suggest that you “are uncomfortable with America as a great power,” a sentiment that pervades all your messages. I return to this point because I think it highlights our disagreement.

Let me state my view of Acheson as simply as I can, since this is our final round. Dean Acheson used America’s extraordinary power after World War II to help build a prosperous and free world and to contain the Soviet Union in its determined efforts to build a very different kind of world. This is certainly the greatest achievement of American foreign policy of this century and while many others deserve credit–Truman and Marshall most importantly–Acheson was central to it.

It is a measure of Acheson’s success that his main legacy is now accepted by the right and left, both of whom bitterly opposed it at the time. The left–Henry Wallace, Izzy Stone–thought he should have accommodated Stalin, the right that he should have gone much further. The most virulent attacks against him came from the right of course, particularly from McCarthy and Nixon. Their principal charge against Acheson’s foreign policy was that it was unconcerned with the communist threat outside of Europe, especially in China. The implicit, and often explicit, answer to the “Who Lost China” question was, “Dean Acheson!” (That’s why I think it’s almost bizarre that you constantly equate McCarthy with Acheson, his nemesis. It like calling Jerry Falwell and Ted Kennedy soulmates!)

Still Acheson, like virtually every statesmen of his time, did exaggerate the importance of fighting communism in remote parts of the world. As I’ve said before, I share the Kennan-Lippmann belief in defining the national interest narrowly. The crux of your argument, however, is that this exaggeration was a high crime, led to international calamity, and was a product of racism. On the last first, Acheson may have been a racist, but his policies were not. He helped Japan rebuild itself mightily. In fact he was instrumental in shifting the emphasis during MacArthur’s occupation toward restoring Japanese prosperity. He refused to intervene during the Chinese civil war. So with the two most important Asian countries–both distinctly non-white last time I checked–he scores well by your own measures.

Acheson was not obsessed with most of the rest of the world–at a time when most American policymakers wanted to combat communism in every desert and rice-field. But he did think the United States had to act when confronted by a Soviet backed invasion against a friendly regime, i.e. Korea, as did George Kennan. Were Truman and Acheson wrong to let MacArthur move north of the 38th parallel? Yes, but they did fire him soon thereafter. And remember that MacArthur was like a demi-God in America. It took immense courage to–albeit belatedly–summon him home. (Oh, since you keep mentioning it, yes late in his life, when out of office, Acheson had too little faith in majority rule in Rhodesia and South Africa, probably for racist reasons. So did your hero George Kennan, who actually wrote an article warning of the horrors of black rule for Foreign Affairs. I say this not to absolve Acheson but to point out that his errors were those of his time and place. His virtues transcended both.)

Finally on Vietnam, which I think was folly and you think was much worse. We could do another whole debate on Vietnam alone–be still my heart!--but for now let me respond to your point. The nobility of a war is often unrelated to whether governments lie about it. The U.S. government lied to the public far more about World War II than it ever did about Vietnam–from the illegal aid Roosevelt gave Britain before being at war to D-Day to the bombings of Japan. And Lincoln, who I’m glad to see is a hero of yours (as mine), deceived the people and acted unconstitutionally throughout the Civil War.

Which brings me back to my first point. Great powers of necessity have to act in the world. Their actions have consequences. Their statesmen’s ideas are tested instantly. Some of them don’t work and people die as a consequence. Every time Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt made a bad call, thousands of soldiers died as a result. The only way to judge them is to ask, did they do better than other statesmen of their time, or others in similar situations? There is only one way not to make any mistakes, and that is never to fight, to turn away from the world in a fit of virtue. That would satisfy your urge for purity, but what would it solve? Someone else would take America’s place–and the world would be a worse place for all, including America. America can shape the world or be shaped by it. Acheson believed enthusiastically in the former. He was right.

You gave me a brief tour of “Alterman Country” in your last message, so allow me to end with a quote from one of my favorite American statesmen, Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Or, in the parlance of pop culture–no guts, no glory.