"There is perhaps nothing more important in the world today than the steadiness and consistency of the foreign policy of this Republic. Too much depends on the United States for us to indulge in the luxury of either undue pessimism or premature optimism." —U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893-1971), Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (1969)
In this post, I pay tribute to one of the principal architects of the postwar security order that ensured peace in Europe for the last half of the 20th century: Dean Acheson, born 125 years ago today in Middletown, Conn. That achievement was all the more remarkable in light of the two wars that convulsed the continent—indeed, the entire world—over a 25-year period just before that.
First as a senior adviser in the State Department under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, then as Secretary of State under the latter, Acheson knit together the diplomatic, military, and economic alliance that prevented Europe from falling to two different totalitarian powers.
After providing legal counsel for the Lend Lease and Bretton Woods accords, Acheson cobbled together the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), tied West Germany closer to its former foes among the Western democracies—and, after unsuccessfully negotiating with the USSR, correctly concluded that dictator Josef Stalin was not to be trusted.
If you Google “Acheson” and “Trump,” many of your results will likely involve Korea, as American involvement with that bitterly divided land mass began under Acheson and Truman with the proxy war fought there between America and the brief Sino-Soviet alliance. That inconclusive conflict epitomized what John F. Kennedy called “the long twilight struggle” between Communism and democracy after the defeat of the Third Reich.
Some of the results of the Google search state that Trump, in calling out North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, has already drawn such a stark line in the sand that he is unlikely to repeat the mistake that Acheson made in 1950 with his National Press Club speech, in which, in outlining the U.S. “defense perimeter,” he did not include Korea.
That comparison might, at least superficially, benefit Trump. But one doesn’t have to look far to see how much further into the record to see how much Acheson would benefit by any such comparison with the current administration:
*His Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Present at the Creation, fulminated against penny-pinching Capitol Hill pols who left his department starved even for stationery. He would have been aghast at a successor (Rex Tillerson) who acceded to an arbitrarily determined 30% budget cut—and left major ambassadorial and undersecretary posts unfilled.
*He would have abominated attempts to drive a wedge among the Western allies, such as the Brexit campaign.
*He would have denounced the current President as ignorant of world affairs, too lazy to compensate for his knowledge deficit, and astonishingly acquiescent to a Russian leader bent on imposing a neo-Stalinist regime at home and reckless adventurism abroad.
*He would have recognized that an uncertain civil-rights banner at home would have dangerous repercussions abroad. “The existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with countries,” he warned in 1946.
*He would have been rankled by a President who craved loyalty without giving it himself. It was his good fortune, he would later note, to work for Truman, in tribute to his WWI service, "the captain with the mighty heart."
In the volatile world of foreign affairs, occasional mistakes are inevitable, and Acheson was not immune, as evidenced by his uncharacteristically imprecise National Press Club speech. But even in that case, Trump supporters who denounce the “globalism” that they see Acheson epitomizing might want to consider that the President made the same kind of mistake that Acheson did.
Acheson erred by not more clearly including Korea within the U.S. defense perimeter, perhaps indirectly spurring Stalin and Chairman Mao toward encouraging North Korean action against the South. By saying that America wanted to get out of Syria as soon as possible, Trump appears to have led Syrian President Assad into thinking he could violate the rights of his own civilians with impunity.
The system that Acheson and his European counterparts implemented represented a wonder of improvisation amid possible postwar collapse, a feat of order wrested from chaos. By undermining the rule of law at home and a concert of democratic powers abroad, Trump threatens to do the exact opposite.