Review of “Present at the Creation” by Dean Acheson

Present at the Creation: My Years in the State DepartmentPresent at the Creation: My Years in the State Department by Dean Acheson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Dean Acheson memoir, published in 1969, has a title that is actually very appropriate. Acheson was a State Department official serving under FDR, and later under Harry Truman, eventually rising to the position of Secretary of State. This memoir takes us on a tour of some of the most difficult, and momentous, times in American diplomatic history.

Acheson covers the critical post war period, offering first hand insights even for the period that he was out of government. That time presented truly difficult choices for the United States, with the decisions made delivering the post war system and consensus that we are all so familiar with. What were the issues, and how did the Post World War II world order come into being? Acheson covers the tough challenge that Stalin gave to the West immediately after the war, with a strong focus on the German question. The status of Germany post war, accepted and known now by our generation as western in outlook and governance, was not something that just happened. Josef Stalin put enormous political and psychological pressure on the West, including blockading Berlin, offering political inducements to the West Germans (potential re-unification under a “neutral” political framework) and creating major political obstacles to successful four power governance and occupation of defeated Germany. As the Germans moved to rebuild and become part of the European and world community the diplomatic challenges were stark. Acheson covers them in detail, with a quick look at the Marshall Plan. As Europe rebuilt after the war the seedlings of the Common Market, and the E.U. were planted. That diplomacy required substantial balancing between French fears of German industrial and military resurgence, and the German desire to shed the occupation and become re-integrated into the European community. Acheson spends much time on how this progressed, and all of the problems that needed to be overcome. The long and expensive cold war between East and West grew out of this dispute, and Acheson gives us a great viewpoint on Soviet Russia and the inherent difficulty of negotiating with Stalin. The fiscal difficulty of picking up the West, economically and militarily, is also looked at, with some discussion of getting the “allies” to pick up a greater share of the military burden, and the diplomatic and domestic issues surrounding that question. Fortunately Acheson and President Truman recognized the realities and made the necessary investment that enabled the U.S. to “contain” the Soviet threat. Acheson covers how the U.S. picked up the burden in Greece as the British were leaving, holding off the threat of “losing” Greece to Soviet influence.

Acheson was the face of U.S. foreign policy, along with George Marshall, during the Truman years, and he took plenty of heat from a GOP controlled Senate. His views on China, and on the issue of “who lost China” to the communists, brought much criticism from the Acheson described “primitives” of the Senate. Acheson is quite emphatic that the serious errors of Chiang caused the loss of the Nationalists to Mao, (even producing an extensive China White Paper) and I do believe that history has vindicated that judgement. But that political argument, in my view, had negative consequences for the U.S. for years to come, impacting the major policy makers as they considered U.S. options in Vietnam, giving them a political fear of “losing” Vietnam and being subjected to the same type of political attacks launched on Truman and Acheson on the China issue, in my view making decisions based on that political fear, rather than on a pragmatic policy basis. Despite his characterization by the GOP as soft on Chinese communism Acheson continued to be a staunch opponent of recognizing the Mao regime in Peking.

Acheson took major heat after the Korean War broke out, with critics citing his speech that outlined the “defensive perimeter” of the U.S. that omitted Korea. The critics, upon the North Korean invasion, cited the Acheson speech as an “invitation” to the Soviets and North Koreans to launch the military action. Acheson was highly sensitive to this charge, and took great pains to rebut it in the book. He gives us a good view of the action in Korea, with a very strong, negative view of the actions of General Douglas MacArthur, and strong support for President Truman’s eventual sacking of MacArthur. The diplomacy involved in the Korean conflict, the Soviet error of leaving the U.N. in advance of the vote to oppose the North Koreans by the international community, and the connection of the Korean and Taiwan (Formosa) issues are covered extensively.

No Acheson book can be complete without mentioning that he operated in the period that spawned Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, and the Acheson described “primitives,” are covered extensively, and the damages done by them were felt for years. Hyper-partisanship, and party hatred, did not start in 2016. As GOP Senator McCarthy and his minions terrorized the U.S. government, and the State Department especially, some in Congress spoke out against the madness. Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith, in her Declaration of Conscience, issued in 1950, (joined by 16 colleagues) said: ‘The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horseman of Calumny-fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.” (Acheson, Dean Present at the Creation page 365) Of course Acheson was the subject of many of these attacks, and the back and forth with the Senate, and how this dynamic impacted foreign policy, is covered extensively.

Finally Acheson covers the policy adopted by the U.S. with regards to Indochina. Acheson exhibits a dim view of French policy, but concedes that U.S. policy makers, himself included, felt constrained by the need to counter the Soviets in Europe, and feared French backlash if the U.S. were to become too critical of the failed French policy in Indochina. He exhibits, at this early date, some of the same failures of thought that characterized U.S. policy makers in the decades to come, especially with regards to Ho Chi Minh. Acheson tacitly admits the failure, but confesses that even as he wrote the memoir he could not justify the policies, but could not think of a workable alternative. For those that think the study of history is a waste of time look at the early development of U.S. Indochina policy, and how ignorance of history helped to foster one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history.

Acheson truly was “present at the creation,” being the State Department (not as Secretary) representative to the Bretton Woods Conference that established the post war financial system, including the IMF and the World Bank, working on the creation of NATO, as well as the economic agreements that started the European Common Market, and the E.U., and was one of the key architects of the “containment” policy designed to limit Soviet influence and expansion at a time of great strategic danger for the U.S. He was not the Secretary, but the U.S. recognition of the State of Israel in 1948 by President Truman was one of the major post war foreign policy decisions that helped to shape the new world order. (Both Acheson and General Marshall were opposed) Managing the British retrenchment world wide, especially in the Middle East, started with Truman and Acheson. He managed the German question, but was also responsible for concluding the peace treaty with Japan, helping to craft the post war order in that vital part of the world. Acheson designed the process that effectively prevented the Soviets from derailing the treaty, or making changes that would have been inimical to U.S. interests. His work there was outstanding, and is still being felt in a positive way today.

This book is very long, and could have benefitted from the omission of many minor details. Acheson is exceedingly deferential to President Truman but is not afraid to highlight areas of disagreement with his boss. He is less deferential to FDR, with whom he had some major areas of disagreement. I read this book the old fashioned way as it was not available on Kindle. Despite the length I am happy to have read it, and recommend it to those interested in how the post World War II world order was established. Acheson was a major intellectual force in the development of that order, and certainly one of the most impactful Secretaries in U.S. history.

View all my reviews

A look at the Acheson book from “Foreign Policy” Magazine.

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