Dean Acheson

Robert L. Beisner’s comprehensive biography focuses on Dean Acheson’s years as secretary of state. Acheson’s earlier yearshis childhood, education, and government service during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administrationare treated quickly but effectively. Beisner brings to his account of the man generally regarded as America’s greatest secretary of state a full and perceptive understanding of the whole man, demonstrating how Acheson’s personality and prejudices informed his world outlook and shaped the policies of President Harry S. Truman.

President Truman’s main problem was how to regard the Soviet Union in the years immediately following the end of World War II. Was the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s leadership capable of continuing the wartime alliance with the United States that had proved so effective in prosecuting the war against the Axis powers, Germany and Japan? At Yalta, the agreement on postwar conditions that President Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Stalin had reached was predicated on a spirit of cooperation and a tacit acknowledgement of spheres of influence. With the Red Army occupying half of Germany and much of Eastern Europe, American policymakers tried to safeguard the liberties of countries like Poland, but Soviet pledges to conduct free elections were essentially unenforceableunless the United States was willing to intervene militarily. This option seemed unthinkable given that the United States had just concluded a major war and had already demobilized considerable portions of its military forces.

Nevertheless, many Republicans urged a hostile policy toward the Soviet Union, especially since it soon became clear that in countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia no governments would be permitted to rule that were not subservient to Stalin. In this tense situation, American diplomat George Kennan proposed what came to be known as the “containment” policy. The United States would not go to war against the Soviet Union, but it would resist Soviet infiltration of countries such as Greece and Iran, supplying military and logistical support to countries threatened by communist subversion that sided with the United States.

As secretary of state Acheson early on (by 1947) concluded that most negotiations with the Soviet Union were fruitless. The United States had to bargain from a position of military and economic strength. Largely due to Acheson’s efforts and President Truman’s wholehearted endorsement, a series of initiatives were introduced to bolster Western Europe and to deflect the Soviet Union from considering any sort of military incursion into nations allied with the United States.

Thus under Acheson the United States promoted the Marshall Plan (economic aid to Western Europe), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance, and a stable pro-Western German government in the part of Germany occupied by U.S., French, and British forces at the end of World War II.

Beisner’s biography is especially brilliant on Acheson’s support of West Germany. Without Acheson’s steadfast belief that West Germany would prove a bulwark against Soviet aggression, the postwar world would have looked quite different.

In retrospect, Acheson’s pro-West Germany policy seems inevitable. However Beisner shows how much of a risk Acheson took in working for this new country, which meant Germany would remain divided. The French and the British feared a West German state that might again become militaristic and start yet another war. Acheson also worried that Western Europeans might accept the Soviet plan for a unified but weak neutral Germany that neither side (the West and the Soviets) could dominate. Just the opposite would prove true, Acheson argued: A weak disarmed Germany would simply become a divisive unsteady entity demoralizing its people and making it vulnerable to Soviet subversion.

Acheson was adept at balancing between the British and the French, using one to play off the other when needed. Beisner refutes charges that Acheson was an Anglophile....

(The entire section is 1681 words.)


Booklist 103, no. 2 (September 15, 2006): 17.

The Economist 380 (August 26, 2006): 68.

Library Journal 131, no. 14 (September 1, 2006): 155.

National Review 58, no. 21 (November 20, 2006): 47-48.

The New Republic 235, no. 16 (October 16, 2006): 26-32.

The New York Times 156 (October 4, 2006): E7.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (October 15, 2006): 1-11.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 29 (July 24, 2006): 47.