Cold Warrior

Two interesting reviews of a new book on Dean Acheson that are worth noting. John Lewis Gaddis reviews ($) Robert L. Beisner’s Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War for The New Republic. In addition to discussing the man and the book Gaddis ponders the Democratic Party’s reaction to President Bush’s foreign policy:

They have responded to the first Republican president to have become a liberal interventionist by quivering–and blogging–with rage. They have offered no plan for building on the Bush Doctrine and moving on. It’s as if they’re imitating the Republicans of the 1930s, who quivered with rage at Roosevelt (blogging had not been invented yet) while neglecting his warnings about tyrants, as well as his vision of what a world without them might be.

As to the book itself, Gaddis has mixed feelings:

Beisner’s is by no means the first biography of Acheson: Gaddis Smith, David McLellan, Douglas Brinkley, and James Chace have written well-regarded ones, and Acheson’s own memoir sprawls over some seven hundred pages. But Beisner’s biography is the first to focus closely on the Truman-Acheson relationship, and to evaluate in detail Acheson’s performance as secretary of state. There is probably too much detail: Beisner’s six hundred and fifty pages of text, which draw more extensively than any other book on the documentary record of the years between 1949 and 1953, suggest that he feared some posthumous but scathing rebuke from his subject if he left anything out. That is unfortunate, because the size of the book obscures its sharpness. It requires persistence, but it rewards it.


In conclusion, Gaddis comes back around to the Bush Administration and Democrats:

What Beisner does not say is how much Acheson anticipates George W. Bush. The president’s national strategy statements seem modeled on NSC-68. His performance is under attack, but so was Truman’s in his sixth year. Bush is stuck with a bloody insurgency in Iraq, but Truman and Acheson blundered into a bloody war with China. And Bush’s rhetoric channels Acheson with eerie precision. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” the president argued in his second inaugural address. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

So where does this leave young Democrats who are looking to Truman to guide their party’s future? They could begin by reading Beisner on Acheson, a book that demythologizes Truman. It is important to have heroes, but it is also important to get them right; and Beisner does that. Young Democrats could also rethink their party’s prejudice against plagiarism. This is indeed a bad idea when practiced by students, novelists, historians, journalists, and over-committed commencement speakers. But it can be a very good idea when practiced by political parties.

More than anything else, the borrowing of ideas–often without attribution–is what has spared the United States the proliferation of single-issue parties that so often paralyzes politics elsewhere. Political plagiarism makes big tents possible. If Reagan and Bush could borrow from Truman and Acheson, then it’s hard to see why Democrats today should not borrow from Reagan and Bush. To say that nothing can be learned from an opponent’s ideas is to claim infallibility for one’s own, a pretension to which even Acheson never aspired.

– The New York Times brings out the big guns for this one, and has Henry Kissinger review Beisner. Not surprisingly, Kissinger brings his own government service to bear on Acheson. As a result he offers a succinct outline of what the job of Secretary of State involves:

In this maelstrom, Acheson dealt with the five principal tasks of any secretary of state: the identification of the challenge; the development of a strategy to deal with it; organizing and motivating the bureaucracy in the State Department and in other agencies; persuading the American public; and conducting American diplomacy toward other countries. These tasks require the closest collaboration between the president and the secretary of state; secretaries of state who seek to base their influence on the prerogatives of the office invariably become marginalized. Presidents cannot be constrained by administrative flowcharts; for a secretary of state to be effective, he or she has to get into the president’s head, so to speak. This is why Acheson made it a point to see Truman almost every day they were in town together and why their friendship was so crucial to the achievements of the Truman years.

Kissinger is also a historian of diplomacy, however, and his review offers an interesting contrast between the thinking of Acheson and George Kennan:

Kennan represented the other strand of American thinking. He rejected what he considered the militarization of his own views, inaugurating a debate that has not ended to this day. Acheson implicitly believed that situations of strength would be self-enforcing, and he played down the importance of diplomatic engagement with the adversary. Kennan raised the question of how to gain Soviet acquiescence in the process and urged negotiation, even while the ultimate structure was being built. Acheson treated diplomacy as the more or less automatic consequence of a strategic deployment; Kennan saw it as an autonomous enterprise depending largely on diplomatic skill. The danger of the Acheson approach has been stagnation and gradual public disenchantment with stalemate. The danger of the Kennan approach has been that diplomacy might become a technical exercise in splitting differences and thus shade into appeasement. How to merge the two strands so that military force and diplomacy are mutually supportive and so that national strategy becomes a seamless web is the essence of a continuing national controversy.

As a one time student of this period (I wrote my Masters thesis on Cold War intellectual history) I find this subject endlessly fascinating. If Beisner’s book wasn’t 800 pages I would be tempted to pick it up.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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