Dean Acheson

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Dean Acheson (1893–1971) was an American statesman who dominated foreign policymaking in the 1940s and early 1950s. A specialist in international law, he held top positions in the Treasury Department in 1933. For most of 1941–53, he was a senior official in the State Department and more responsible than anyone else—even more than his boss President Harry S. Truman—for many major policy decisions.

Acheson was primarily responsible for shaping American foreign policy during the Truman administration in the early Cold War years, 1945-1952, including the implementation of the containment strategy. He helped design and implement many important institutions, including Lend Lease, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, together with the early organizations that later became the European Union and the World Trade Organization. His most famous decision was convincing Truman in June 1950 to intervene in the Korean War. Historians have argued, "Dean Acheson was more than 'present at the creation' of the Cold War; he was a primary architect."[1]

Acheson came under heavy attack for his policies in China and for his defense of State Department employees accused during Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist investigations in 1950–52. In addition, then-FBI head J. Edgar Hoover also suspected him of being a closet communist, even writing an internal memo dated on May 1946 warning the Truman administration of how Acheson had been particularly worrisome regarding "pro-Soviet leanings." alongside Alger Hiss and John McCloy regarding an enormous Soviet spy ring within Washington.

After he left office in 1953 he practiced law and advised presidents of both parties. Acheson was instrumental in framing U.S. policy toward the Vietnam War, persuading Truman to dispatch aid and advisors to French forces in Indochina. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy called upon Acheson for advice, bringing him into the executive committee (ExComm), a strategic advisory group. In 1968 he counseled President Lyndon B. Johnson to negotiate for peace with North Vietnam.

Early career

Acheson was born in Middletown, Connecticut, April 11, 1893. His father was the socially prominent Episcopalian bishop of Connecticut; both parents were Canadians and he had a slight British accent and demeanor that annoyed his Anglophobic critics. They accused him with some justification of having a pro-British bias. Acheson attended Groton School and Yale College (BA 1915). At Groton and Yale he had the reputation of a partier and prankster; he was somewhat aloof but still popular with his classmates. Acheson's famous arrogance—he disdained the curriculum at Yale as focusing on memorizing subjects already known or not worth knowing more about—was early apparent. At Harvard Law School from 1915 to 1918, however, he was swept away by the intellect of professor Felix Frankfurter and finished fifth in his class.

In 1917, during wartime service in the National Guard, he married Alice Stanley. She loved painting and politics and served as a stabilizing influence during their long, traditional marriage; they had three children: David, Jane, and Mary. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a liberal, made Acheson his clerk for two terms from 1919 to 1921.[2] In private practice in Washington he specialized in international law.

Government service

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Acheson undersecretary of the Treasury, on May 19, 1933; when the Secretary fell ill he suddenly found himself acting secretary despite his ignorance of finance. Because of his opposition to FDR's liberal plan to inflate the dollar by controlling gold prices, the conservative Acheson was forced to resign in November 1933.

With World War II on the horizon, Roosevelt brought in many prominent conservatives, including Henry Stimson at the War Department, and Acheson for a top job at the State Department, assistant secretary of state. In 1945 he was promoted to undersecretary of state, the number two position, holding it 1945-47 under President Harry S. Truman.

Cold War

As late as 1945 Acheson sought détente with the Soviet Union, which was FDR's wartime policy. He switched to Containment policy in order to stop further Soviet expansion in the face of Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and threats to Iran. When he realized the Soviets were working outside traditional diplomatic channels, Acheson became a devoted and influential cold warrior.

Acheson promoted UNRRA and the Bretton Woods Conference and played a major role in designing the Marshall Plan. In 1946, as chairman of a special committee to prepare a plan for the international control of atomic energy, he wrote the Acheson-Lilienthal report. He resigned as undersecretary of state, June 30, 1947, and resumed his law practice.

Secretary of State, 1949–1953

On Jan. 7, 1949, Acheson was appointed secretary of state to succeed George C. Marshall, who had failed to stop the loss of China to violently anti-American Communists. Acheson operationalized containment in Europe by creating NATO, a military alliance that in fact did end further Soviet expansion in Europe, He designed the Japanese peace treaty, signed in 1951.

Korean war

On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech to the National Press Club excluding South Korea from the defense perimeter.[3] Omar Bradley blamed Truman and Acheson in his memoir A General's Life, and historian Bill Shinn concurs.[4][5] At the same time, evidence from Korean and Soviet archives demonstrates that Stalin and Kim Il-sung were planning were already in the works and Acheson's remarks only had "a certain influence on Kim Il-sung".[6]

With the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, that country switched from a close friend of the U.S. to a bitter enemy—the two powers were at war in Korea by 1950. Critics blamed Acheson for what they called the "loss of China" and launched several years of organized opposition to Acheson's tenure; Acheson ridiculed his opponents and called this period in his outspoken memoirs "The Attack of the Primitives." Although he maintained his role as a firm anti-communist, he was attacked by various anti-communists for not taking a more active role in attacking communism in Asia. During the Korean War both he and Marshall, now serving as Secretary of Defense came under attack from Joseph McCarthy. Congressman Richard Nixon ridiculed "Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment." This criticism grew very loud after Acheson refused to 'turn his back on Alger Hiss' when the latter was accused of being a Communist spy, and convicted (of perjury for denying he was a spy).

On December 15, 1950, the Republicans in the House of Representatives resolved unanimously that he be removed from office, but nothing came of it.

He retired as secretary of state on Jan. 20, 1953. Eisenhower ignored him but he later served as a foreign policy adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson as well as his old antagonist Richard Nixon. In 1970 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his memoirs.


  • "The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull."
    • Oxford dictionary of quotations
  • "Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role."
    • Speech at West Point (5 December 1962), in Vital Speeches, January 1, 1963, page 163.

"I am willing to join in your statement on the ground that I feel about the future of the United States whenever the President starts out on his travels the way the Marshal of the Supreme Court does when he opens a session of that Court. You will recall that he ends up his liturgy by saying "God save the United States for the Court is now sitting."

    • Grapes from Thorns (1972), page 67.
  • "How could the USA champion individual freedom in the world generally while denying it to an important minority in its own country."


  • Beisner, Robert L. Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (2006), 800pp; a standard scholarly biography; covers 1945-53 only
  • Beisner, Robert L. "Patterns of Peril: Dean Acheson Joins the Cold Warriors, 1945-46." Diplomatic History 1996 20(3): 321-355. Issn: 0145-2096 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Brinkley, Douglas. Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71. 1992. 429 pp.
  • Brinkley, Douglas, ed. Dean Acheson and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy. 1993. 271 pp. essays by scholars
  • Chace, James. Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World. 1998. 512 pp.
  • Frazier, Robert. "Acheson and the Formulation of the Truman Doctrine" Journal of Modern Greek Studies 1999 17(2): 229-251. online at Project Muse
  • Harper, John Lamberton. American Visions of Europe: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George F. Kennan, and Dean G. Acheson. 1994. 378 pp.
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. The Long Entanglement: NATO's First Fifty Years (1999) online edition
  • Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1997) 864pp; covers Acheson and colleagues Charles E. Bohlen, W. Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John J. McCloy; excerpt and text search
  • Leffler, Melvyn P. "Strategy, Diplomacy, and the Cold War: the United States, Turkey, and NATO, 1945-1952" Journal of American History 1985 71(4): 807-825. in JSTOR* McGlothlen, Ronald L. Controlling the Waves: Dean Acheson and US Foreign Policy in Asia (1993) online edition
  • McNay, John T. Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy (2001)
  • Merrill, Dennis. "The Truman Doctrine: Containing Communism and Modernity" Presidential Studies Quarterly 2006 36(1): 27-37. online edition at Blackwell Synergy
  • Offner, Arnold A. "'Another Such Victory': President Truman, American Foreign Policy, and the Cold War." Diplomatic History 1999 23(2): 127-155. online in Blackwell Synergy
  • Offner, Arnold A. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War. (2002) 640pp, highly negative excerpts and text search
  • Spalding, Elizabeth Edwards. The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, And the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism (2006)

Primary sources

  • Acheson, Dean. A Democrat Looks at His Party (1955)
  • Acheson, Dean. A Citizen Looks at Congress (1957)
  • Acheson, Dean. Sketches from Life of Men I Have Known (1961)
  • Acheson, Dean. Morning and Noon (1965)
  • Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department(1969), 816pp; highly revealing memoir; won the Pulitzer prize; excerpt and text search
  • McLellan, David S., and David C. Acheson, eds. Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson (1980)


  1. Randall Bennett Woods, "The Good Shepherd," Reviews in American History, Volume 35, Number 2, June 2007, pp. 284-288
  2. Beisner (2006)
  4. A General's Life by Omar N. Bradley, pg. 528
  5. The Forgotten War Remembered, Korea: 1950-1953: A War Correspondent's Notebook & Today's Danger in Korea by Bill Shinn, pg. 52
  6. The Korean War: An Interpretative History, By Stanley Sandler, 2002.

See also