Study Guide

Dean Acheson

by David McLellan

Dean Acheson Analysis

Dean Acheson (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Dean Acheson has been acknowledged as one of the great statesmen of our time and one of the most dynamic Secretaries of State in our history. Appropriately, the focus of this biography by David S. McLellan, Professor of Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is on Acheson’s service in the Department of State. Acheson cast a striking figure; his style, his courage, his eloquence, and his arrogance are invariably noted by admirers and critics alike. McLellan clearly falls into the first category. The thrust of his biography is on Acheson’s actions as a leading foreign policymaker. Although somewhat cursorily, the author also attempts to illuminate Acheson’s character, the basis for his strong convictions and sense of personal honor. It may be assumed that Acheson’s family background and education determined his patrician bearing, as well as his orientation toward public service. In this context, Harvard Law School was a particularly crucial phase in Acheson’s development. So was the young Acheson’s association with such admirable men as Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Louis Brandeis. Acheson’s clerkship under Justice Brandeis may be seen as a particularly significant formative period, for the “moral grandeur of Brandeis” had a profound impact on him. Acheson came to adopt a code of conduct to which he adhered uncompromisingly throughout his life. In the eyes of McLellan, the core of Acheson’s conduct was the conviction that how a man lives his life is the most important thing. He would be true to his principles, regardless of the consequences. However, having set enormously high standards for himself, McLellan observes, Acheson became merciless in judging others.

Following his clerkship, Acheson joined for the first time the famed Washington law firm of Covington and Burling, which brought him into contact with ranking persons in the federal government. His introduction to public service began, inauspiciously, with the advent of the Roosevelt Administration, when he was appointed Undersecretary of the Treasury. This position came to an abrupt end before it ever really began, because of a policy disagreement with the President. Despite this disappointing experience, Acheson’s intellectual affinity with the New Deal continued to grow and his break with Roosevelt gradually healed. His State Department career formally began in 1941 with the appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. In this capacity he was significantly involved in such matters as the development of the Lend-Lease program and the Bretton Woods negotiations. He demonstrated early an outstanding ability to cultivate the relevant members of Congress and helped secure the passage of vital legislation. His accomplishments led to his appointment in late 1944 as Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations, a position which he was reluctant to accept, but later, embarrassedly, admitted that he enjoyed.

When Harry Truman assumed the Presidency, he made Acheson the Undersecretary of State. The high esteem in which both men held each other is well-known. Truman’s trust and confidence in Acheson were well-placed, indeed. As McLellan points out, Acheson worked very diligently to make the State Department an effective and responsive instrument of the President’s will. In his effort to control fully the bureaucracy he may have come closer to succeeding than anyone before or since. The postwar era was wrought by crises requiring major American initiatives. McLellan depicts Acheson’s lead in packaging the Truman Doctrine in the universalistic rhetoric, evidently essential to winning the public’s support. The promulgation of the Truman Doctrine decisively altered the course of American foreign relations. Within a few weeks after the President’s momentous speech before the joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, the Congress enacted the Greek-Turkish Aid Program. The next year it passed the Marshall Plan, providing more than twelve billion dollars for the rehabilitation of Western Europe. Acheson’s contribution lay principally in eliciting wide public involvement in the Marshall Plan. Another important...

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Dean Acheson Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Best Sellers. XXXVI, February, 1977, p. 36.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, October 13, 1976, p. 29.

Guardian Weekly. CXV, October 17, 1976, p. 18.

New York Times Book Review. September 12, 1976, p. 7.

New Yorker. LII, July, 1976, p. 1527.