How has Dean Acheson been significant in the history of the United States?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Recent Secretaries of State have not played the same kinds of roles as Acheson and others before him did; they are generally less instrumental in the policy-making aspect of the job and often serve more as diplomatic emissaries between the United States and other countries. 

The significance of Dean Acheson's...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Recent Secretaries of State have not played the same kinds of roles as Acheson and others before him did; they are generally less instrumental in the policy-making aspect of the job and often serve more as diplomatic emissaries between the United States and other countries. 

The significance of Dean Acheson's contributions to history are evident simply by looking at his list of accomplishments. He was Secretary of State, the person designated by the President of the United States as being the spokesman for the country in terms of foreign policy and foreign affairs, as well as the shaper of policy in these affairs.

He was involved in foreign affairs during some of the most challenging years America has ever had in terms of foreign policy. He had a front-row seat during the escalation of Japan's eventual attack on Pearl Harbor, and he maneuvered the country through the intricate negotiations with Japan after the war.

As Under Secretary of State he helped create three significant international organizations (listed above) which are fundamental to international unity, organizations which deal with money, food, agriculture, relief, and rebuilding. These are all essential components of any worldwide efforts to provide aid and order of all kinds to the places that need it.

Acheson was Secretary of State during the escalation of the so-called "Red Scare" and kept a steady hand on the helm as the world regrouped after the devastation of World War II. It was in America's (and frankly the world's) best interest to keep Communism from spreading and to ensure that the country's that would be future friends of America were rebuilt with our help. The strategy which was used, the Marshall Plan, was created in part by Dean Acheson.

To that end, he was a fierce defender of democracy at a time when the threat of Communism was quite real. He was vilified in his own country by Joseph McCarthy but withstood the attacks and continued to navigate foreign policy during what we now know was the beginning of the Cold War. 

In June of 1950, Acheson convinced President Truman to take action during the Korean War, and the United States became the primary military force to join South Korea in fighting off Communism. This is perhaps the most significant contribution that Acheson made in his attempts to contain Communism.

Later, he is called upon by President Kennedy to be part of an advisory team during the Cuban Missile Crisis, an incident in history which could easily have escalated into another war. Acheson's experience during the Korean War also made him a valuable asset to Lyndon Johnson. When the President wanted to disengage American troops from Vietnam, he called on Acheson for his expertise.

Dean Acheson was not simply a figure-head or a so-called talking head. Instead he was an active policy-maker, on behalf of the United States, to the world during some very formative years. In retrospect, his most significant efforts concerned the containment of Communism at a time when it was ready to explode onto the world's stage. Acheson was also a national policy-maker and an advisor to at least four U.S. Presidents. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dean Gooderham Acheson was born in 1893 and spent his growing-up years in Middletown, Connecticut. He attended Groton School, Yale University, and Harvard Law School.. At Harvard, he was elected to be a member of the Harvard Law Review

Early in his career he served as law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis; after that he joined a law firm but was soon appointed to be Under Secretary of the Treasury in Franklin Roosevelt's administration. He resigned in 1933 due to a policy dispute, but he was asked to join the Department of State, where he became Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs in 1941.

Of course this was a critical time for America in terms of foreign affairs, and he was able to observe the escalating tensions between America and Japan which we know eventually lead to America's involvement in World War II. Acheson's primary responsibility during this time was to oversee the United States' oil embargo with Japan.

Once the war was over, Acheson was appointed as Under Secretary of State in Harry Truman's administration. Over the next decade, he was the primary negotiator for the United States leading to the creation of the Food and Agricultural Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In 1949, Truman named Acheson Secretary of State, succeeding James F. Byrnes. Acheson served in this position from 1949 to 1953.

His role in WWII was less significant than the later role he played as Secretary of State; he was a pivotal figure in shaping America's policy during the early years of the Cold War. Often, Acheson was the first official voice anyone heard about the Truman administration's foreign policy. 

While Acheson did support the Truman Doctrine and believed in containing Communism, he was also a realist. He understood that the Soviet Union not only believed in a different form of government but was also a formidable global powerhouse which was likely to pose a significant and viable threat to U.S. interests around the world. This philosophy helped shape every decision in which he was involved during his time as Secretary of State. 

He was concerned about how to prevent Soviet influence in the war-ravaged country of Germany, so he was in favor of forming NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). The purpose of this organization, established in 1949, was to create a defensive alliance to keep the Soviet Union in check as well as ensure that post-war Germany aligned itself with Western Europe and America. 

As Secretary of State, Acheson also dealt with such hot-button issues as the rebuilding of Japan as part of the U.S. plan for eastern Asia; the international control of atomic weapons; the Korean War; the protection of Asia, the Middle East and Yugoslavia from the Soviets; and the Communist takeover of China by Mai Zedong. The infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy later blamed Acheson for allowing China to become a Communist country, probably because Acheson defended State Department employees during McCarthy's so-called witch hunt. He also played a role in developing the Marshall Plan. 

Even after he left his post, Acheson had influence on America's foreign policy. Most notably, he was part of the Executive Committee created by President Kennedy to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also served as an advisor to President Johnson regarding our withdrawal from the Vietnam War.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for his memoir in 1970 and died in 1971.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team