I keep thinking about my weekend in Washington. As I rode up to Bard College, where I teach, I found it hard to avoid looking out the window as the train ran along the Hudson River, and once again I caught a glimpse of West Point. The ramparts of the military academy reminded me of the Private Ryan phenomenon, also reflected in the review in today’s New York Times of Tom Brokaw’s book on “the greatest generation.” There is no doubt that the country is undergoing a bout of nostalgia for a time when a generation that came to the fore during and after World War II was committed to public service. The reason that men such as Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, Will Clayton, and others entered government in the first place was to serve their country; they were too old to be captains or colonels in 1941, so they went into the State and War departments and then, for the most part, stayed on when the Cold War broke out. In their case, they came to Washington not to make their careers and then leave government to make money but the reverse, as they were already successful lawyers, bankers, and businessmen.
Acheson was by far the most gifted of them all, as I realized when I was doing research for my recent biography of him. I was struck, first of all, by his integrity. When he was called before a Senate committee to explain why he had said publicly that he would not turn his back on Alger Hiss (then convicted of perjury)–which was not a defense of Hiss but simply a statement of Christian compassion for a former colleague–he told the senators, “One must be true to the things by which one lives. The safe course is to avoid situations which are disagreeable and dangerous. Such a course might get one by the issue of the moment, but it has bitter and evil consequences. In the long days and years which stretch beyond that moment of decision, one must live with one’s self. It is not merely a question of peace of mind, although that is vital; it is a matter of integrity of character.”
Acheson was also lucky in having Truman as his chief. Both men were highly decisive, and the president generally backed Acheson to the hilt. Acheson once said at a staff meeting: “To hell with the cheese. Let’s get out of the trap.” Decisiveness is a characteristic that Madeleine Albright also possesses. I like that in her, and I am sympathetic to her desire to intervene with force if force is what it takes to bring about a settlement–as it certainly did in Bosnia. But she has a White House that is hesitant to back her up, and the growing weakness of the president isn’t going to make things any easier for her if, as I suspect it will, the Senate goes forward with a trial.
Autres temps, autres moeurs.