Dean Acheson

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, Acheson conducted negotiations leading to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and dealt with crises involving the victory of Communism in China and American participation in the Korean War; his policies determined the basic framework of the United States’ security commitments in Europe and Asia during the Cold War.

Early Life

The son of a Canadian couple who had moved to the United States only the year before, Dean Gooderham Acheson was born on April 11, 1893, in Middletown, Connecticut. His father, Edward Acheson, had served with a Canadian militia regiment before settling upon a career as an Episcopalian minister. Eleanor Gooderham Acheson, the boy’s mother, was from a prosperous and socially prominent family in Toronto. Margot and Edward, Jr., a sister and a younger brother, were born during the next ten years. Acheson recalled that his childhood was unusually happy, a golden age of games, pony riding, and Fourth of July celebrations. He never quarreled with his father until he was in college; he had a particularly fond and close relationship with his mother. During his adolescent years, Acheson was educated at the Groton School in southeastern Connecticut. After six languid years there, he spent the summer of 1911 in Canada, working on the Temiscaming and Northern Ontario Railroad; the experience of unrelenting physical labor among rough-hewn railway men left enduring memories of life in the wild that Acheson cherished in later life. That autumn, he enrolled at Yale University, and with only a modicum of effort he received passing grades and was graduated in 1915.

Acheson then entered the law school of Harvard University; he found academic demands there far more rigorous but also more challenging and stimulating. Particularly rewarding was his relationship with Professor Felix Frankfurter, who encouraged him in the study of constitutional law. For some time Acheson had seen his sister’s roommate at Wellesley College, Alice Stanley, the daughter of a Michigan lawyer; in 1917 he married her. The following year, after he had earned his law degree, Acheson enlisted in the Naval Auxiliary Reserve, and for several months, until World War I ended, he served as an ensign at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He then intended to pursue graduate studies in law, but after six months at Harvard, Professor Frankfurter obtained a position for him as secretary to Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. In 1919, Acheson moved to Washington, D.C.; as he attended to the myriad details of cases brought before the high court, he received lasting impressions of Brandeis’ unstinting standards of excellence. Devoted to the justice’s work, Acheson provided needed assistance and support when Brandeis’ wife suffered a nervous breakdown. In appreciation, Brandeis made an unusual offer, extending Acheson’s appointment as his secretary for a second year.

Life’s Work

At about this time, Acheson’s life became more settled. A daughter, Jane Acheson, was born in 1919, followed by a son, David, and a younger daughter, Mary. In 1920, the family moved into a small house in Washington; later they acquired a quaint old farmhouse in Sandy Spring, Maryland, which Acheson regarded as a welcome refuge from legal and political cares. By his own account, Acheson was a liberal in politics, and the Republican ascendancy of the 1920’s evidently deepened these convictions. In 1921, he joined Covington and Burling, a promising new law firm in the nation’s capital. Although often aroused by political issues, he spent the next twelve years handling cases at law, some of which had international implications. In 1922, he represented Norway in proceedings arising from wartime shipping contracts; with others in the firm, Acheson argued this case before the Court of International Justice in The Hague. Other legal work concerned corporations or involved claims of water rights in the United States.

Dean Acheson was six foot three, with a spare but powerful build. His oval features were set off by a large protruding nose; he had brown hair, which he combed back in spite of its tendency to recede in later years. He had thick, bushy eyebrows which seemingly were underscored by the mustache he had cultivated since early manhood; to the delight of cartoonists, he often combed the ends upward, producing a curiously flamboyant effect. His manner perplexed many of those around him. He could be supercilious to the point of overt arrogance, but he could also act with a distinct stoicism, which possibly arose from his father’s religious calling. He was able to endure direct affronts with quiet dignity. His style of speaking and writing, which was urbane and refined, bore the hallmarks of careful and discriminating reading; at times he would invoke great American or British thinkers or quote aphorisms in Latin.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic administration assumed power, and Felix Frankfurter’s intercession with the new president secured for Acheson an appointment as under secretary of the treasury. Major disagreements ensued, however, over the government’s policy of manipulating the price of gold in an effort to stimulate economic growth. Acheson had misgivings about the legal basis for such action and believed that it was improper in view of existing gold contracts. After six months in office, he resigned and returned to his law practice. In 1939, Felix Frankfurter was nominated as a Supreme Court justice; Acheson served as adviser and representative to his old mentor during the Senate confirmation hearings. Acheson then became chairman of a committee advising the attorney general. During the next year, President Roosevelt considered means by which American destroyers might be sent to Britain, to aid in its war with Nazi Germany; Acheson assisted in legal work facilitating this transfer of military vessels. In 1941, Acheson was appointed assistant secretary of state for economic affairs. He played an important part in financial planning during World War II and aided in the establishment of such organizations as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. As under secretary of state from 1945 to 1947, he participated in deliberations leading to the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan. He was also the chairman of a special committee which considered problems surrounding proposals for the international control of atomic energy.

Although he had often expressed his wishes for a return to private life, and indeed left the State Department in 1947, President Harry S Truman appreciated his experience and his skill in coordinating administrative work. Accordingly, Acheson accepted his appointment to the nation’s highest diplomatic post, in January, 1949. He had first to deal with...

(The entire section is 2804 words.)