American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell

By Edward S. Mihalkanin | Go to book overview
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DEAN ACHESON (1893-1971)

Served 1949-1953

Appointed by President Harry S Truman

Democrat

As a boy in Middletown Connecticut, during what he later described as “the golden age of childhood, Dean Gooderham Acheson had a pony that didn't share its master's passion for imaginative games. “Mean, as well as lazy, and uncooperative, Acheson wrote of the animal, “he knew who was afraid and who would fight back. The timid did well to feed him sugar on a tennis racquet; but he was gentle as lamb if one had one's fist cocked for a fast punch in the nose.” The lesson stayed with Acheson throughout his life, and when he became the most gifted secretary of state in the twentieth century, he would often approach his adversaries with that same fist cocked, ready to bargain but equally ready to deliver a fast punch. He was not merely present at the creation, as he called his memoir of his state department years; he was the prime architect of that creation.

It would be Acheson, first as Under Secretary, then as Secretary of State, who would be a prime architect of the Marshall Plan to restore economic health to Western Europe, who refashioned a peacetime alliance of nations under the rubric of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and who crafted the Truman Doctrine to contain any Soviet advance into the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It was Acheson who had already been instrumental in creating the international financial institutions at Bretton Woods that helped ensure global American economic predominance. And it was Acheson who would stand by Truman in deciding that the United States must respond to the North Korean invasion of South Korea, who urged the firing of General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, and who stood up to the vilification of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Above all else, it was Acheson who created the intellectual concepts that under-girded Truman's decisions, who had the clearest view of the role America might play in the postwar world, and who possessed the willpower to accomplish these ends. Despite later appearances Dean Acheson was not an American patrician. Nor was he born to great wealth. His father, who was born in Kent, England, in 1857, basically ran away from a wicked stepmother in his teens and emigrated to Canada.

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