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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 467


This is the grave of Dean Acheson.

Born in 1893 in Middletown, Connecticut, Acheson grew up rich. He attended Groton and then Yale and then Harvard Law, where he was blown away by Felix Frankfurter, who became a mentor. He entered the Naval Reserve and then during World War I the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. After the war, he clerked for Louis Brandeis for two terms. This was the very beginning of bright young law students clerking for Supreme Court justices. It was Frankfurter who told Brandeis to take on Acheson. Now very well-connected and also a committed Democrat, which his father was as well, Acheson took a position at an influential DC law firm, he became an expert on international legal issues. This led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to appoint him as Undersecretary of the Treasury in 1933. However, it didn’t last long. While Acheson was an expert on global issues, he really didn’t know that much about economic policy. Moreover, his boss, William Woodin, got sick and this forced Acheson to be the effective Secretary of the Treasury at a time when Roosevelt was innovating in government. Acheson was in way over his head. He opposed FDR’s plan to weaken the dollar and create inflation by controlling gold prices, which then put him on the outs with the president. He resigned in November 1933 and returned to his law practice.

This did not permanently damage his relationship with Roosevelt though. He was still a true international expert in an era when the U.S. didn’t have so many of those. He was the occasional useful cog during the New Deal, such as in 1939, when he was appointed to a commission to study the operation of various bureaus in the government. But it was in 1941 that Acheson began his rise to prominence, when Roosevelt named him Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. This was a critical time and Roosevelt needed the best people. Acheson’s job included administrating the Lend-Lease program, just as one example. He also worked on the embargo of Japanese assets. Acheson took this one step further. While Roosevelt was in Newfoundland to meet with Churchill, Acheson took it upon himself to expand that to deny the Japanese oil imports. Roosevelt didn’t really approve of this escalation. He wanted to bring the Japanese to heel, not needlessly antagonize them. But then he figured once it was done, it would look weak to overturn Acheson. So the oil embargo stood. Among Acheson’s work during World War II was playing a key role at Bretton Woods, which established the postwar financial framework that created the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT).

After Roosevelt died, Acheson became a favorite advisor of Harry Truman, who named him Undersecretary of State in 1945. Despite a lot of turnover at State–going from Stettinius to Byrnes to Marshall, Acheson retained that position. Initially, Acheson was a big proponent of continued attempts at cooperation with the Soviets and held on to this idea much longer than many other American foreign policy experts. With Tennessee Valley Authority chairman David Lilenthal, he co-authored the Acheson-Lillenthal Report, laying out an framework for international cooperation on nuclear weapons to prevent future nuclear warfare. But by 1947, having seen the reality of Soviet aggression over eastern Europe and growing increasingly close to Truman, including accompanying him frequently on international trips. He became the real architect of both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. The former was in many ways incredibly brutal and started the U.S. on its path of uniting with brutal right-wing dictatorships to crush freedom movements that may or may not have been Stalinist fronts, though in Greece certainly they were. The Marshall Plan on the other hand is the greatest foreign policy action in all of American history, both in terms of success but also in terms of a policy that centered human needs in it. Rebuilding western Europe not only served the nation’s policy interests, but it also greatly built the postwar American economy while stabilizing a critical part of the world and helping them move toward functional democracies.

All of this led to Truman naming Acheson as his Secretary of State in 1949. He helped build NATO but also found his term heavily compromised by what happened in Asia. There was nothing that Acheson or Truman could have done about China. Unlike the pablum published by Chiang Kai-Shek’s personal journalist hack Henry Luce, Chiang was hopelessly corrupt, had little support in the Chinese countryside, and bumbled his way to defeat. But all of this hardly stopped Republicans from claiming that Democrats had “lost China,” as if it was there’s to lose. This then made the defense of South Korea and Taiwan centerpieces of American foreign policy, but the Korean War ended up a stalemate and left Truman and Acheson unpopular. A young scumbag congressman named Richard Nixon started calling the State Department “Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment.” That Acheson did not denounce Alger Hiss only helped people such as Nixon. But what was he really going to do.

After Eisenhower’s victory in 1952, Acheson became a senior foreign policy guru in Washington. The Eisenhower administration totally ignored his existence, but he was involved in creating foreign policy positions for the Democratic Party and so when John F. Kennedy won in 1960, he rose again to influence. Kennedy called him to go to France during the Cuban Missile Crisis to convince Charles de Gaulle to go along with the American blockade of Cuba. That was successful, but Acheson wanted more aggressive action against Cuba and was angry when Kennedy did not go that far. Under Lyndon Johnson, he was part of the senior foreign policy heads known as the Wise Men, who in their infinite wisdom decided it was necessary to get the American military involved in a civil war in Vietnam, leading to a policy and humanitarian disaster known as the Vietnam War. Acheson did later turn against the war, by 1968 at the latest. But the damage was done. Interestingly, despite the way Richard Nixon had demonized him twenty years earlier, Acheson became an important advisor during that administration as well.

Johnson gave Acheson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1970, he wrote his memoir, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History. In 1971, Acheson had a massive stroke at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, and died. He was 78 years old.

Dean Acheson is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of State, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Foster Dulles is in Arlington National Cemetery and Christian Herter, who may the most obscure post-war Secretary of State, is in Millis, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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