The Book Club

Red Dean of the Cowardly College of Containment?

Dear Eric,

I must confess to being somewhat disarmed by your generous decision to appoint me Secretary of State in a future administration. How am I to keep up the vigorous disagreement that Slate expects of us?  Let me simply suggest, in that spirit of extravagant prophecy, that you are destined to be the next I. F. Stone.

On Acheson: I’m glad that we agree that he was a dashing fellow, brimming with brains, character and integrity.  You disapprove of the fact that he was also a Cold Warrior.  You think he was responsible for “hardening” the Cold War–which lead to needless conflict abroad and an atmosphere of fear at home.  Let me take the second point first. To accuse Acheson of creating McCarthyism is to assume that all anti-Communism leads to McCarthyism. McCarthyism was in large part a reaction to Acheson’s foreign policy–i.e. containment rather than rollback.  And as far as the witch hunts at home were concerned, Acheson was one of the very few statesmen who publicly condemned them as “vicious madness.” Throughout his years in office, the Republican right pilloried Acheson demanding his resignation and calling him “the Red Dean of the Cowardly College of Containment.”

On the first point, Acheson certainly spoke (and often acted) tough with regard to the Soviet Union.  He recognized that the mood of the country in 1946, ‘47, and ‘48 was moving rapidly toward an apathetic isolationism.  Meanwhile the Soviet Union had begun moving determinedly to extend its political influence in Europe.  Chace’s book shows convincingly that Acheson was not reflexively anti-Soviet, in fact he was willing to seek accommodation until Soviet moves in Eastern Europe and the Middle East became unmistakable.  

But outside of a few sweeping moments of rhetoric, Acheson was actually very careful, circumspect and restrained in defining American interests.  When asked by Congress why he favored aid for anti-Communist rebels in Europe not in China he replied to the effect, “Senator, China is not Europe.”  He continually emphasized the centrality of Western Europe and thought much of the third world was strategically of lesser import.  The “Press Club” speech that you mention was precisely an attempt to demarcate America’s limited vital interests in Asia.  (It was not the reason for the North Korean invasion by the way; several other senior officials had made the same speech before and we now know that the invasion had been planned before the speech.)  Surely you recognize that once the North Koreans invade the South, the situation changed, which is why even George Kennan believed that America had to respond to naked aggression.

You suggest as a model different and better than Acheson, John Quincy Adams, who spoke famously of America being the “well-wisher” not the “champion” of freedom abroad.  But, Eric, are you really opposed to the efforts that Acheson and others made to “champion” freedom after World War II? I think that Acheson’s greatest legacy was that he used America’s overwhelming power after World War II to foster a world order based on democracy, capitalism, free trade and international law. He recognized that the Soviet Union rejected and was a threat to that world order - and so it had to be contained. (On this Melvin Leffler’s book, The Preponderance of Power, is excellent.) And yet, compared with other politicians and statesmen at the time, he did it with restraint and moderation, not giving in to hysteria or defeatism.  (When Acheson became secretary of state he placed only two portraits of former secretaries in his office–one of which was of John Quincy Adams.) I wonder if our real disagreement is that you are uncomfortable with this world order and with the use of American power to attain it, however prudently it might be used.

After you, Izzy.