24 jul. 2008

Cold Warrior

Dean Acheson arriving at the White House to meet with President Truman, April 1951.
Dean Acheson was perhaps the most vilified secretary of state in modern American history. Robert L. Beisner, in “Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War,” his sweeping and thoughtful account of Acheson’s tenure, cites a scholar who, with meticulous pedantry, discovered that during the four years — 1949-53 — that Acheson served as secretary of state, Republicans made 1,268 antagonistic statements about him on the Senate floor and only seven favorable ones (one wonders for what).

Dean Acheson with President Nixon, December 1970; he confessed that he was not immune to Nixon’s switch from “abusive hostility to respect.”

History has treated Acheson more kindly. Accolades for him have become bipartisan. Secretaries of state appointed by the party of his erstwhile tormentors have described him as a role model; Condoleezza Rice is the most recent example. Thirty-five years after his death, Acheson has achieved iconic status. This is all the more remarkable in view of his out-of-scale personality, so at odds with the present period, in which eminence seems to be tolerable only in the garb of the commonplace.
The debonair conduct, the bristling mustache, the Bond Street tailoring, the biting wit, the extraordinary analytical skill coupled with a defiant refusal to turn the other cheek bespoke an affirmation of the idiosyncratic over the conventional. Acheson was a man of high principle, whose hero was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an iconoclastic Boston Brahmin shaped by the 19th century, and whose best friend was Felix Frankfurter, the brilliant son of Jewish immigrants.
Though Acheson served during the transition when America emerged as a world power and enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, the scale of government was as yet relatively small, and Washington was still a comparatively provincial city. Its political conflicts were not shaped by public relations advisers or tested on focus groups; hence they were somewhat personal. That senior officials must remain blandly obliging while their veracity or honor is being systematically challenged was never part of the Acheson code. This explains the scene, unimaginable today, when Acheson, in the author’s words, at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, admonished Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska not to shake his dirty finger in his face. When Wherry persisted, Acheson rose and launched a roundhouse swing at the senatorial gadfly, which was stopped at the last moment because Adrian Fisher, the legal adviser of the State Department, wrapped his arms around Acheson and pulled him down into his seat.
When Acheson became secretary of state, America had only just started its journey toward global involvement. Africa was still colonial; Britain was predominant in much of the Middle East; Indian democracy was only two years old; Germany and Japan were still occupied countries. The debate was not over aspirations to hegemony but over whether the nation should engage itself internationally at all, never mind permanently. It was appropriate that Acheson entitled his memoirs “Present at the Creation.”
The position of secretary of state is potentially the most fulfilling in the government short of the presidency. Its scope is global; ultimately it rests on almost philosophical assumptions as to the nature of world order and the relationship of order to progress and national interest. Lacking such a conceptual framework, incoherence looms in the face of the daily task of redefining America’s relationship to the world via the thousands of messages from nearly 200 diplomatic posts and the constant flow of communication from the Executive Department — all this against the backdrop of Congressional liaison and press inquiry.
Acheson served as under secretary of state and then as secretary during the period when a people that had known no direct continuing threat to its security since the early days of the Republic had to be brought to recognize that its permanent participation in the world was indispensable for peace and security. Inevitably this realization was painful and slow in coming, if indeed it has been fully achieved to this day. This is why Acheson was assailed from both political sides, by those insisting on an end to involvement through total victory over the threat and, on the other side, by those who thought there was no threat to begin with, or at least none that required Acheson’s militant response.
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.
No secretary can fulfill all these tasks with equal skill — though Acheson came closer than any other of the modern period. His overriding challenge was to define a conceptual framework on which to base America’s involvement in global affairs. Beisner, a former president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, describes this process in detail and with special emphasis on Acheson’s growing debate with George Kennan. Acheson turned Kennan’s seminal article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” into the operating principle of American foreign policy. He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.
Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations. But Acheson was less precise about the role of diplomacy in this process once the architectural phase was completed.
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.
Beisner shows how the failure to do so with respect to the Korean War was the cause of the single greatest error of Acheson’s tenure: initially, the placing of Korea publicly outside the American defense perimeter (though this was conventional wisdom at the time) and, later, the inability, after the United States crossed the 38th parallel, to correlate military operations with some achievable diplomatic objectives.
For someone like myself, who knew Acheson, Beisner’s portrait does not always capture the vividness of his personality, which emerges too much as a list of eccentricities. Acheson’s relationship with the Nixon White House, and to President Nixon himself, is too cavalierly dismissed as the result of ego and an old man’s vanity. As a participant in all these meetings, I considered that relationship an example of Acheson’s generosity of spirit. Nixon had made essentially unforgivable attacks on Acheson during his 1952 campaign for vice president. But when he reached out to Acheson, it was received with the consideration Acheson felt he owed to the office, as a form of duty to the country. Acheson dealt with the issues Nixon put before him thoughtfully, precisely, without any attempt at flattery, in pursuit of his conception of national service and, unlike some other outside advisers, without offering advice that had not been solicited.
Acheson emerges from the Beisner book as the greatest secretary of state of the postwar period in the sweep of his design, his ability to implement it, the extraordinary associates with whom he surrounded himself and the nobility of his personal conduct. He was impatient with relativists who sought surcease from the complexity of decisions by postulating the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. His values were absolute, but he knew also that statesmen are judged by history beyond contemporary debates, and this requires a willingness to achieve great goals in stages, each of which is probably imperfect by absolute standards.
This was the theme of an Acheson speech at the War College in August 1951: “There was not ‘one more river to cross’ but ‘countless problems stretching into the future.’ ... Americans must reconcile themselves to ‘limited objectives’ and work in congress with others, for an essential part of American power was the ‘ability to evoke support from others — an ability quite as important as the capacity to compel.’ ”
The importance of that perception has not changed with the passage of time.