Dean Acheson was President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State in the years 1949-1953. He was attacked by elements of the right-wing, which accused him of surrounding himself with Communist spies and of contributing to the fall of China to the Communists. And, after Alger Hiss (who was accused of being a spy for the Soviets) was convicted of perjury, Dean Acheson’s statement that he would not turn his back on Hiss invited further criticisms from the right. Richard Nixon himself was a critic of Acheson. In the 1952 Presidential election campaign, Nixon as Dwight Eisenhower’s running-mate called Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson a “graduate of Dean Acheson’s Cowardly College of Communist Containment” (Nixon’s words).
But when Nixon was President and was conducting U.S. policy for the war in Vietnam, Acheson was one of Nixon’s most vocal supporters, and Nixon turned to Acheson for advice. Stephen Ambrose talks about a March 19, 1969 meeting that Nixon had with Acheson on pages 259-260 of Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. What intrigued me was Ambrose’s portrayal of Acheson as one who had a tough-on-Communism attitude. On page 260, Ambrose characterizes Acheson’s advice to Nixon on Vietnam as follows:
“Acheson’s advice, as always, was to keep the powder dry, make no concessions, enter into no negotiations, and dig in for the long haul.”
After narrating that Acheson, like Nixon, initially supported President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 decision to send a substantial number of troops to Vietnam, only to later confess to Nixon that this decision was wrong, Ambrose discusses Acheson’s negative views on negotiating with the Soviets:
“These confessions of converted Cold Warriors were of course completely private. Neither [Acheson nor Nixon] would have dreamed of admitting in public that he had been wrong, nor did the realization lead Acheson to wonder if perhaps he had been wrong in his consistent refusal to ever negotiate with the Soviets (from the time of Potsdam, July 1945, until he left office in January, 1953, Truman had not had one meeting with the Soviet leader).”
When Nixon asked Acheson if it was “a good time to initiate discussions with the Russians” (Nixon’s words), Acheson said no. Ambrose dryly narrates: “Indeed, in Acheson’s view, it was never a good time.” Ambrose says that Nixon valued Acheson’s support on such issues as missile defense, but that Nixon never again sought Acheson’s advice on dealing with the Russians. Ambrose seems to imply that Acheson was frozen in a stock anti-Soviet ideology.
So Acheson was firmly anti-Communist! That’s not what the right-wing literature that I used to read had to say about him! Recently, I read the book on Richard Nixon by John Bircher Gary Allen, entitled Richard Nixon: The Man Behind the Mask. Allen in that book is quite critical of Acheson. Allen presents the usual right-wing criticisms, such as the accusation that Acheson surrounded himself with Communists in the State Department, and the criticism of Acheson for refusing to turn his back on Alger Hiss. But Allen makes another accusation on page 162: “…Joseph Stalin had hired Acheson to be the Soviet Union’s personal attorney in the United States prior to the official recognition of the Soviets by FDR…During Acheson’s tenure as their legal representative, the Communists made tremendous advances throughout the world.”
I don’t know if Acheson was ever the personal attorney for the Soviet Union. I checked the wikipedia article about Acheson, and it did not mention that. It did say, however, that Acheson in 1945-1946 favored detente with the Soviet Union, a plan for “international control of atomic energy”, and conciliation towards Stalin. But the article then goes on to narrate that Acheson became concerned about the “Soviet Union’s attempts at regional hegemony in Eastern Europe and in Southwest Asia”, and thus Acheson came to be an architect of Truman’s Cold War policy against Soviet expansionism. In short, Acheson changed his mind and became more anti-Soviet, according to the wikipedia article. The thing is, that did not seem to be enough for many of Acheson’s right-wing critics. You will recall that Nixon associated Acheson with containment. That was a debate at the time: Should the U.S. only seek to contain Communism by stopping its expansion, or should the U.S. pursue the liberation of countries already under Communist control?
I have one book that I have not yet read, How the Far East Was Lost: American Policy and the Creation of Communist China, 1941-1949, by Anthony Kubek, who was a Professor of History at the University of Dallas. You can find a brief biography of Kubek on this site, which talks a lot about non-conformist historians, or revisionists. While Kubek is a non-conformist, his book is praised on the back cover by David Nelson Rowe of Yale University. Just thumbing through the book, I get the impression that Kubek argues for standard right-wing points about the fall of China to the Communists—-that the U.S. contributed to it. When I looked up Acheson’s name in the index, I saw Kubek’s reference to his argument in the book that Acheson pressured the Nationalist Chinese to negotiate with the Communists. Was this an exception to Acheson’s usual aversion to negotiating with Communists?
I enjoyed this Amazon review of Dean Acheson’s Present at Creation: My Years at the State Department. The reviewer is Stan Vernooy. Vernooy says that Acheson has been accused by some of being too tough on Stalin, and by others of being overly “accommodating and naive” about Communism. But what Vernooy says is that he (meaning Vernooy) learned more humility as he read Acheson’s book, for Acheson highlighted the complex considerations that were involved in arriving at decisions. That makes me wonder if Acheson truly was as knee-jerk anti-Soviet as Ambrose seems to portray. Perhaps there was complexity in Acheson’s approach to foreign policy. I don’t know enough about Acheson to say, but there’s plenty out there for me to read about him!