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Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World

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This is the authoritative biography of Dean Acheson, the most important and controversial secretary of state of the twentieth century. It is an important and dramatic work of history chronicling the momentous decisions, events, and fascinating personalities of the most critical decades of the American Century.

About the Author:
James Chace was the Paul W. Williams Professor ...

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Overview

This is the authoritative biography of Dean Acheson, the most important and controversial secretary of state of the twentieth century. It is an important and dramatic work of history chronicling the momentous decisions, events, and fascinating personalities of the most critical decades of the American Century.

About the Author:
James Chace was the Paul W. Williams Professor of Government and Public Law at Bard College

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Editorial Reviews

Patrick Glynn
[An] authoritative and highly readable biography....Superb. -- Commentary
Lance Morrow
Acheson handsomely reproduces the post-war era. -- Time
Francis Fukuyama
It is hard to read this account of Acheson and Truman and not feel considerable nostalgia for an earlier Democratic Administration, when giants truly walked the earth. -- New York Times Book Review
Richard Bernstein
. . .a useful, clear history of the major events of the post-war world that Acheson helped to shape. . . .a book about. . .a figure of clear vision and strong character who managed to support mostly the right policies when other policies were being proposed.
The New York Times
Library Journal
Chace Henry Luce Professor in Freedom of Inquiry, Bard College begins his book with the early life of Dean Acheson in a small town in Connecticut. One might expect the chief architect of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War to be a conservative in his early years, but Acheson was almost the opposite. This irony and many others continued throughout Acheson's life. His initial goal was to be a promising labor attorney, and even as late as World War II, he longed to return to the practice of law. Yet he stayed on as Undersecretary of State and later as Secretary of State under Truman's second administration, and he would continue to advise later presidents until his death in 1971. Chace has done an excellent job of research and writing the story of Acheson's life; countless interviews and more than 50 pages of notes form the biography. It is difficult to separate someone of Acheson's caliber from an administration's foreign policy stance, yet Chace succeeds brilliantly.
-- Mark E. Ellis, Albany State University Library, Leesburg, GA
Washington Post Book World
What makes Acheson such an excellent book is Chace's ability to blend serious foreign policy analysis with colorful vignettes...He tells his story with intelligence and grace.
Richard Bernstein
. . .a useful, clear history of the major events of the post-war world that Acheson helped to shape. . . .a book about. . .a figure of clear vision and strong character who managed to support mostly the right policies when other policies were being proposed. -- The New York Times
New York Times Book Review
An engrossing biography.
Kirkus Reviews
An intelligent, meticulously researched biography of Dean Acheson (1893-1971), who as Harry Truman's Secretary of State became 'the most important figure in American foreign policy since John Quincy Adams.' With aristocratic hauteur, decisiveness, command of facts, and biting wit, Acheson could face down dictators, rabid right-wingers, and American presidents. Only now, however, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the opening of U.S. and Soviet files, can a proper assessment be made of his achievements and errors.

Drawing on these and other sources, World Policy Journal editor Chace provides an even-handed appraisal. An accomplished lawyer, Acheson came into his own as Assistant Secretary of State for Franklin Roosevelt, when he played a key role in shaping the Lend Lease and Bretton Woods accords. Chace throws the last pile of dirt on revisionist historians' contention that Acheson helped precipitate the Cold War, noting that he sought to reach agreement with Josef Stalin until Soviet designs on Europe forced him into pursuing containment. Under Truman, Acheson helped formulate the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine and, in what Chace sees as his lasting legacy, brought West Germany into NATO, thus preventing a major Continental land war for the last half of the century. While admiring Acheson's achievements, Chace also notes that his shrill rhetoric encouraged successors' global containment schemes, which this Eurocentric, pragmatic statesman never intended, and that his policies in Asia were less sure-footed than his policies in Europe. He became vulnerable to GOP attacks because of his refusal to condemn Alger Hiss and America's 'loss' of China, yet he retained theunstinting support of Truman.

As an elder statesman, Acheson urged John Kennedy to order limited air strikes during the Cuban missile crisis and turned against the Vietnam War as one of Lyndon Johnson's 'wise men.' A skillful biography of one member of a species now seemingly headed toward extinction in Washington: a government titan of remarkable achievement, eloquence, loyalty, and integrity.

From the Publisher
"James Chance's absorbing biographt does justice to all aspects of a fascinating man." — Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"Acheson is a great American biography. Written with the historian's sweep and the novelist's talent, it tells the engrossing story of a remarkable American who did so much to shape the American Century. But it does even more. For Acheson also illuminates our future." — Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize

"It is hard to read this account of Acheson and Truman and not feel considerable nostalgia for an earlier Democratic administration, when giants truly walked the earth." — Francis Fukuyama, The New York Times Book Review

"A useful, clear history of the major events of the postwar world that Acheson helped to shape.... A book about...a figure of clear vision and strong character who managed to support mostly the right policies when other policies were being proposed." — Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"This comprehensive biography of Dean Acheson is a page-turner.... Chace draws on original research and interviews, revelations from newly opened archives, and decades of scholarship. Immensely readable, this is an indispensable book about a titan who...provided indispensable leadership in the seminal years of the 1940s and 1950s for what was to become the indispensable country." — David Fromkin, author of In the Time of the Americans

"To understand America's role in the world today, you have to understand Acheson, one of the century's most influential and colorful statesmen. And Chace does. He portrays him as a brilliant realist who had the ability and desire to assure that the United States was willing to assert its power." — Walter Isaacson, author of Kissinger

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674000810
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.23 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

James Chace was the Paul W. Williams Professor of Government and Public Law at Bard College. The former managing editor of Foreign Affairs and the author of eight previous books, most recently Acheson, he passed away in October 2004.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Custom of the Country
Pt. 1 A Boy's Life
Pt. 2 The Imperatives of Action
Pt. 3 From Alliance to Cold War
Pt. 4 The Secretary of State
Pt. 5 The Warrior in Exile
Coda: "A Blade of Steel"
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Acknowledgments
Index
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First Chapter

The very day Dean Acheson assumed the office of secretary of state on January 1, 1949, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek resigned the presidency of the Republic of China. His Nationalist armies, badly led and demoralized, had collapsed before the onslaught of well-disciplined Chinese Communist troops.

In Nanjing, the last capital of the Chinese Nationalist government, the American ambassador and former missionary John Leighton Stuart had set up "an elaborately decorated tree" to try to provide what he called "something of Christmas cheer in the gathering gloom." Now, with the holiday over and Chiang in his picturesque retreat in the hilly countryside near the Chikiang coast, the last American ambassador insisted he remain at his post and wait for the Communist forces to capture the capital.

Finally, on Sunday morning, April 24, 1949, the Communists easily crossed the great Yangtze River -- which American general Albert Wedemeyer had once said could be defended with broomsticks by an army willing to fight -- and entered the city. In the face of Nationalist soldiers who deserted their posts and fell apart before the highly motivated Communist troops, the orderly armies of Mao Zedong quietly took over Nanjing.

As total Communist control on the Chinese mainland now appeared inevitable, the Republican opposition bitterly tried to pin the "loss" of China on the Democrats. And as the Republican attacks mounted in fury, Acheson found it increasingly difficult to carry out the policy that he believed was best for the United States -- to wait until the Communists had fully consolidated their power (both on the mainland and on the island of Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek and remnants of his forces hung on), to recognize Mao's new regime, and to try to prevent it from becoming subservient to the Soviet Union.

The problem that constantly bedeviled him was the willingness of the Republican opposition to hold up appropriations for European recovery in order to force the administration to support Chiang Kai-shek. Acheson's strategy at home therefore was to try to placate pro-Chiang conservatives while the president mobilized support for containment in Europe.

How had this all come to pass? To Acheson, the American Congress and public needed and deserved an explanation of U.S. policy for the past four years; in the spring of 1949 he had his staff prepare a one-thousand-page document known as the China White Paper. It was designed to provide a dispassionate history of American efforts to hold China together after Japan's surrender, while portraying the increasing Nationalist corruption and incompetence, along with the evidence of Communist determination and discipline.

American attitudes toward China had always been shaped by the missionary and the trader. Along with its traders, America sent missionaries in abundance, and their success was measured less in numbers of converted Chinese than in the importance of their influence in America. By the time Acheson was in college, the Chinese revolution of 1911-12, led by the founder of the Kuomintang Party, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, had overthrown the Manchu dynasty, and Americans tended to feel a sentimental attachment to the Chinese. As Acheson himself described it years later, "I went to Yale, and we had a Yale-in-China in the central part of China. We raised money throughout the years -- $10 a year or whatever it was -- and we supported this place. And the Chinese came here to every college in the country, and we made pets of them. The boys were taken home for supper, and they'd tell fascinating stories about what it was like in that strange part of the world.... We are emotional about this thing."

From the beginning of the century, Washington insisted on an "Open Door" policy, which called for every nation to have economic access to the Chinese market and therefore for the territorial and administrative integrity of China. This allowed the United States to express its traditional distrust of colonialism while at the same time demanding that the United States have a right to establish its own trading relationships with the Middle Kingdom.

Despite American insistence on the principles of the Open Door, Washington nonetheless pursued a foreign policy without giving those principles any support in terms of power. The Chinese civil war, which broke out in 1927 between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists, led by Mao Zedong; the occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese in 1931; and the subsequent invasion of China by the Japanese in July 1937 all provoked condemnation by the U.S. government but no military intervention or aid to preserve China's territorial integrity.

The success of the Japanese war machine in China did provoke an ever-stronger American response in terms of economic embargoes on Japan, and American sympathies lay with China. But little or no help was given to the Chinese government, which mended relations with the Communists in 1937 in a half-hearted attempt to form a common front against the Japanese.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changed all this. With the United States now at war with Japan, the Chinese government, which had retreated to Chongqinq in far western China, received an American military mission and extensive aid under lend-lease. Because the Chinese were now allies against the Japanese, American policy was to promote continued cooperation between the Communists and the Nationalists in order to win the war against Japan. But with the American entrance into the war, Chiang Kai-shek concluded that the Americans would eventually win and that they would not desert him, no matter how badly his armies fired against the Japanese. Chiang's cooperation with the Chinese Communists faded.

At the end of World War II, American policy continued to urge cooperation between the Nationalists and the Communists. China had been anointed by Roosevelt to assume the role of one of the "four policemen," along with the Soviet Union, Britain, and America, to help keep the peace in the postwar world. At FDR's behest, Stalin was willing to recognize Chiang's government as the legal government of postwar China, the Soviet ruler had little expectation that Mao would win the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists once victory over Japan was assured.

Chiang was a devout and practicing Methodist, aided and abetted by his American-educated wife; he himself spoke no English. He read the Bible every day, was puritanical in his own habits, and brooked no licentious behavior among those in his immediate entourage. He neither smoked nor drank, except at seremonial occasions. He almost always appeared composed and self-confident, though his temper was furious when aroused.

Yet he was also harsh, devious, and cruel, and an incompetent military leader -- "a sucker for a feint," as American officers said. He was adept at divide-and-rule politics. He promised his American advisers that he would institute reforms, but he never did so. His troops were to be saved for postwar battles against the Communists. As he said in 1941, "The Japanese are a disease of the skin; the Communists are a disease of the heart. They say they wish to support me, but secretly they want to overthrow me." To the Americans, most of whom had few illusions about his military ability or his attitude toward corruption, he was nonetheless the indispensable man, the inheritor of Sun Yat-sen's revolution, the symbol of the unity of China.

Mao Zedong, on the other hand, controlled much of north China, and without his cooperation the civil war would erupt again at any time. Moreover, his forces were far better trained and motivated than Chiang's, as a military strategist he was far superior, for he recognized that this was a war of movement and that holding cities far from headquarters with dangerously extended supply lines, as the Nationalist forces now did in the north, rendered them highly vulnerable.

Unlike the trim, ascetic Chiang, Mao was stocky, with a round, unlined face; he was more given to expressing his emotions, ready to flash a broad smile, and better at connecting with his audiences through the use of earthy puns and broad gestures. But he was, if anything, even crueller than Chiang to his enemies, willing to eliminate large numbers of those groups that opposed his dictatorship.

Among his closest collaborators was General Zhou Enlai, a brilliant mandarin who was sent to Chiang's capital to see if the two sides could compose their differences in the final struggle against Japan and, afterward, in the rebuilding of China.

Negotiations between the Nationalists and the Communists came to an end in early November 1945. Moreover, the presence of Major General Patrick J. Hurley, who was appointed ambassador to China in the fall of 1944 and remained in that post for a year, only exacerbated the tensions between the two sides. His bizarre behavior, such as the performance of an Indian war dance at an embassy party and his war whoop of "Yahoo!" when he met with Mao Zedong on November 7, 1944, made it difficult for either side to take him seriously. By the end of his stay, Hurley was wholly committed to Chiang Kai-shek.

On November 27, 1945, General Hurley, who was in Washington to consult with Secretary Byrnes, delivered a blistering attack at the National Press Club on the administration for not having a clear policy toward China, and then he resigned. In his letter of resignation, he denounced Foreign Service officers serving in the American embassy in Chongqinq for siding with the Chinese Communists and therefore wanting "to pull the plug on Chiang KaiShek."

Acheson, under secretary of state at the time, was puzzled by Hurley's statements. He believed that the administration did have a clear policy: by reconciling warring factions, it was trying to restore a "strong, united and democratic China" without intervening militarily in the Chinese civil war. He later admitted that "few, if any of us, including Hurley, myself, the Secretary, General Marshall, and the President, realized that these admirable aims were mutually exclusive and separately unachievable."

That same afternoon Truman telephoned General Marshall, who was planning to retire from active service, and asked him to go to China as his personal representative.

Just before Christmas, Marshall, having worked out his instructions with the president and the secretary of state, was preparing to leave. At that point he told Truman that "no sensible soldier undertakes a field command without leaving a rear echelon at headquarters." He knew only too well that out of sight was out of mind, and he was determined to leave behind someone who would receive his communications from the field, get answers for his requests, and reply within twenty-four hours. This meant a highly placed representative, who, as Acheson tells it, "could surmount bureaucratic procedure of the sort which let General Gordon be overwhelmed at Khartoum through glacial ponderousness of overpreparation." When asked who this should be, Marshall named Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson. He would be the rear echelon. In this way Marshall would be in direct communication with the president.

In essence, Marshall's mission was to reconcile the warring parties, so that "the reunification of China by peaceful, democratic methods" might be achieved as soon as possible. In addition, Truman instructed Marshall to inform Chiang Kai-shek and the other Chinese leaders that "a China disunited and torn by civil strife could not be considered realistically as a proper place for American assistance."

Marshall remained in China for one year and utterly failed to achieve an end to the civil war. He did obtain a ceasefire and a political conference between the two sides before he returned to Washington in March 1946 to arrange for financial credits for a unified Chinese government; at that time he was hopeful that both an interim coalition government and the integration of the Communist and Nationalist armed forces would be achieved.

But this was the high point of his mission. Almost immediately thereafter, the situation in China deteriorated. As the Soviets pulled out of Manchuria, both the Communists and the Nationalists moved into their place; but as they did so, the communication lines of the Nationalists became dangerously overextended. By the time Marshall returned in May, a full-scale war was about to break out. Nonetheless, he obtained a truce until the end of June, but then the fighting resumed.

Back in Washington Acheson believed that the United States should maintain relations with Chiang's government but also consider withdrawing the residual U.S. military forces that remained in China and ending all material support to the Nationalists, if the war resumed.

By October Marshall was at a point where he was about to abandon his role as a middleman between the two warring factions. Concluding that the Nationalists were determined to use force to further their aims, he virtually accused Chiang's government of duplicity in its further military activity in the north. Continued efforts at mediation would be fruitless. Neither the Communists nor the Nationalists trusted one another.

By now the Nationalists had reached an apparent peak of their military endeavors, but their gains were illusory. As Acheson later testified, "General Marshall repeatedly pointed out to the [Nationalist] Government that what it was doing was overextending itself militarily and politically, since it neither had sufficient troops to garrison the whole area nor did it have sufficient administrators to administer areas that it was taking over."

Major General David Barr, chief of the U.S. Advisory Group, described the doomed strategy of Chiangs generals in their campaign in northern China: "In modern warfare the most disastrous of all things to do is to retreat into a city behind walls and take a defensive position."

By 1946 the Marshall mission had clearly collapsed, and the general accepted Truman's offer to become secretary of state.

In the two years that Marshall ran the State Department, the bipartisan foreign Policy that had been worked out for European recovery fell apart when it came to China. The Republicans, flush with victory in the 1946 congressional elections, centered their criticism of the administration's foreign policy on the China issue.

Senator Vanderberg did point out that it was "a very easy, simple matter to dissociate oneself from a policy," but it "is not quite so easy to assert what an alternative policy might have been." In fact, the senators and congressmen who gave unflinching support to Chiang Kai-shek, the so-called China bloc, did have an alternative to the administration's refusal to send in American troops to quell the Communists and appropriate vast amounts of money to prop up the Nationalists.

What China-bloc senators William Knowland of California and Owen Brewster of Maine and congressman Walter Judd of Minnesota wanted was to provide the Nationalists with massive economic and military aid, but without American combat troops. Judd told the House: "Not for one moment has anyone contemplated sending a single combat soldier in."

Since Marshall's unwillingness to use American ground troops reflected almost universal American public opinion, Truman's critics had no other solution except massive military aid. Moreover, in order to get the reluctant administration to pour more money down what seemed to Truman an endless rathole, the Republicans would hold up appropriations on European recovery until the administration agreed to appropriations for China.

To ease Vandenberg's position as a promoter of bipartisan foreign policy and to gain greater support for the European Recovery Program, Marshall believed he had to endorse a policy of limited aid to the Nationalists. The problem with this decision was that such aid merely postponed the inevitable defeat of Chiang's forces on the mainland. In his recommendation to Marshall just before the general left China for home, Ambassador John Leighton Stuart urged that the United States either make a genuine effort to prevent a Communist takeover or do nothing at all.

Stuart's recommendation made sense, but politically it was all but impossible. Nothing was likely to stem the tide of a Communist victory, short of an all-out military effort involving U.S. ground troops. However, to refuse aid to the Nationalists, who seemed to have no intention of making genuine reforms, was abhorrent to many members of Congress. Even Republicans not normally associated with the China bloc joined in an ever more bitter attack on the administration's China policy.

At the end of May 1947 Marshall responded to congressional pressure by lifting the embargo on the shipment of munitions. Over the next six months, as the last American troops withdrew from north China, they left the Nationalist forces some 6,500 tons of ammunition.

Finally, a program of limited assistance became embodied in the China Aid Act of April 1948, which Truman and Marshall reluctantly supported in order to ensure Vanderiberg's support for European aid under the Marshall Plan. It provided for S400 million -- $275 million in economic aid and $125 million in military aid. Altogether the United States gave the Nationalists approximately $1 billion in military aid -- and a similar amount in economic aid from V-J Day in August 1945 through 1948.

In yet another effort to gain support for his policy toward China, in mid-1947 Marshall sent to China on a factfinding mission General Albert Wedemeyer, a tough anti-Communist known as "Barefoot Al" because of his habit of pretending to be humble and uninformed. ("I'm just a farm boy from Nebraska," he would say.)

Marshall, in fact, used Wedemeyer to send secret instructions to the American consulate in Mukden, Manchuria, to begin building bridges with the Communists who were in control there. The Wedemeyer report did call for further aid to Chiang, but the entire mission was ordered by Marshall because it might prove useful for him as he approached Congress for European aid early in 1948.

In the meantime, Chiang's military campaign went from bad to worse, as the generalissimo continued to retain incompetent commanders. Not pausing to consolidate their gains in north China, Chiang's armies tried to take over Manchuria "is well, which was a task far beyond their logistic capabilities. The Nationalists were finally forced to retreat into walled cities, leaving the Communist forces to cut lines of communications and starve them out. By the end of 1948 the Communists had control of Manchuria and most of China north of the Yangtze.

Consistent with his belief that the Communists would overwhelm the Nationalists even if they retreated to Taiwan, Marshall had decided in October 1948 that the United States would not defend Taiwan, a decision "unanimously recommended" by all the departments concerned.

As Chiang anticipated a Communist victory on the mainland, at the beginning of 1949 he transferred to Taiwan all foreign exchange and monetary reserves. He then requested that the United States ship any remaining military equipment destined for China to his island fortress, where he would now make his headquarters and wait for the United States to restore him to power. By May the Nationalist resistance on the mainland was virtually at an end, and the Communists were firmly in power. Mao officially announced the founding of the People's Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, on October 1, 1949.

As these events unfolded, on February 7, 1949, Dean Acheson as the new secretary of state met with thirty Republican congressmen to discuss the likely final collapse of the Nationalist government. Asked to predict the course of events, Acheson replied that "when a great tree falls in the forest one cannot see the extent of the damage until the dust settles."

The next day the press reported that his China policy was to "wait until the dust settles." Though Acheson vainly protested that this was not a policy, but rather a confession of his inability to see very far into the future, the China bloc found his imagery invaluable in assaulting the administration's foreign policy.

Ten days before Acheson took over at State, a National Security Council paper had declared that the "immediate aim of U.S. policy should, therefore, be to prevent China from becoming an adjunct of Soviet power." In that some month, Acheson declared to the NSC that for all intents and purposes the Chinese civil war had come to an end. He believed that the Nationalists might survive in south China and Taiwan "for months or years to come," but it would "at best be a local regime with its claims to international recognition based on insubstantial legalisms." Eventually, he predicted, "most or all of China will come under Communist rule." The last thing the Truman administration should do would be to give any further military aid to the Nationalists, for this would simply solidify the support of the Chinese people for Mao's regime and "perpetuate the delusion that China's interests lie with the USSR."

By the end of February the National Security Council presented a paper to the president that called for the government to "maintain its freedom of action" by pursuing a policy designed "to create serious rifts between Moscow and a Chinese Communist regime."

To this end, Washington should restore "ordinary economic relations between China on the one hand and Japan and the western world on the other." Such an approach would make it possible for the United States "to exploit frictions between the Chinese Communist regime and the USSR should they arise." This strategy might keep Mao from aligning himself too closely to Stalin. Like Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia, Mao would come into power without any significant help from the Soviet Union.

President Truman approved the paper on March 3, 1949.

In early April, when Acheson and his advisers met with Ernest Bevin, they told him that the "Nationalists seem to be washed up, and the Communists able to go wherever they wished." The administration had abandoned "the idea of supporting the regime," but it was difficult "publicly to withdraw support for Chiang." Nonetheless, Acheson, hoping that the United States could eventually recognize Mao's regime, assured Bevin that the "U.S. henceforth will pursue a more realistic policy respecting China."

That spring, with the Communists about to cross the Yangtze on their final push to victory, Acheson successfully resisted a bill introduced by the China bloc to provide an additional $1.5 billion in loans to the Nationalists and to authorize American officers to direct Nationalist armies still in the field. However, in order to win passage of European recovery aid for fiscal year 1950, which would be followed by a push for Senate approval of NATO and its Military Aid Program, Acheson agreed to permit the unexpended portion of the funds provided for in the China Aid Act to be spent beyond the acts expiration date of April 2, 1949; the Senate extended that date to February 15, 1950.

In effect, Congress was making it impossible for Acheson to abandon support of the Chinese Nationalists and move to a realist policy of establishing relations with Beijing on the basis of who represented the effective government of China.

No sooner had the aid bill been modified than Mao Zedong declared on June 30, 1949, that China would align itself with the Soviet Union. To assure the Soviets that he was not about to become an Asian Tito, he asserted, "We must lean to one side....Sitting on the fence will not do; nor is there a third road."

Mao's decision may have been influenced by the extension of the aid bill, but the way had been foreshadowed by Zhou Enlai a few months earlier when he said: "It is a fond dream of the United States to split China from the Soviet Union." However, "The Chinese Communist Party cannot afford to make enemies on both sides, no force can prevent it from having two friends at once."

Although the Chinese Communists might not be able to have close relations with the United States until Washington finally broke with Chiang's Nationalists, they could at least trade with America, and this might lead to eventual diplomatic ties. In fact, ten days after Mao's "lean to one side" statement, Mao dispatched Chen Mingshu, described as a "fellow traveler of the Communists" from the Nationalists, to explain his thinking to the American ambassador in Nanjing. In mid-July 1949 Chen told Ambassador Stuart that Mao's declaration was designed "for his own Party." The Chinese Communists still hoped for formal diplomatic relations between the United States and a Chinese Communist regime.

If Mao and Zhou were moving closer to Stalin, they nonetheless hoped to have good relations with the United States, which could eventually lead to recognition. In this respect, their policies briefly converged with what Truman and Acheson were trying to do. The Americans saw Sino-American trade as a means of weaning away the Chinese Communists from Moscow's embrace; Mao and Zhou saw it as a hedge against too close an alignment with Stalin. At the same time, Stalin, alarmed at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, perceived China as an increasingly valuable asset in the Cold War.

In August 1949 Acheson released the White Paper, seeking to explain and justify American policy toward China since Pearl Harbor. Buttressed by hundreds of pages of documents, it was Acheson's effort as a "frustrated schoolteacher," in Felix Frankfurter's words, to educate the American people as to why the administration should not be held responsible for the fall of Nationalist China.

Though the White Paper still holds up as a model of scholarship, as a means of explaining to the public what happened and why, it failed to achieve its purpose of calming American public opinion: its bulk alone simply did not lend itself to serious study except by scholars. More accessible but ultimately more disastrous was Acheson's Letter of Transmittal, drafted by Philip Jessup.

In the Letter, signed by the secretary of state, Acheson was determined to demonstrate that the failures of the Nationalist government "do not stem from an inadequacy of American aid." Pointing out that "history has proved again and again that a regime without faith in itself and an army without morale cannot survive the test of battle," the Letter reiterated that "nothing the United States did or could have done within the reasonable limits of its capabilities could have changed the results."

The Letter was essentially a political document that portrayed the Chinese Communists as tools of Moscow. It stated that the Chinese Communist leaders "have publicly announced their subservience to a foreign power, Russia." This was a position that Acheson did not hold, according to John Melby, a key adviser on China affairs for General Marshall, who had written the draft of the White Paper. He approved this language in order to appease the China bloc and because he thought it would be little noted.

Once again, as he had in 1947 when he used the heightened rhetoric of the "rotten apples" to gain support for aid to Greece and Turkey, in the Letter Acheson dangerously overstated his case. By asserting Beijing's submissiveness to Moscow, he made it much more difficult to pursue a policy of recognition, even should Mao eventually conquer Taiwan and eliminate all domestic opposition.

In fact, Acheson was still searching for a way to separate Beijing from Moscow. He seems to have believed that China's Communist leaders would eventually have to choose between the interests of their own people and those of Moscow. By accusing Mao of kowtowing to Stalin, he hoped to spur on the Chinese to "throw off the foreign yoke."

Not only did the White Paper arouse the ire of Walter Lippmann, who attacked the language about China's subservience to the Soviet Union and also believed America had been doing too much in a losing cause, it also enraged the China bloc, which believed America had done too little. General Hurley called the White Paper "a smooth alibi for the pro-Communists in the State Department who had engineered the overthrow of our ally, the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China."

Republican senators like Knowland, Styles Bridges of New Hampshire, and Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, along with Democrat Pat McCarran of Nevada, assailed the White Paper as "a 1,054-page whitewash of a wishful, do-nothing policy which has succeeded only in placing Asia in danger of Soviet conquest."

Diplomatic recognition of the Communist Chinese government, which Mao officially proclaimed as the government of China on October 1, 1949, was an absolute necessity in Acheson's view. But it was almost impossible to accomplish, not only because of the strength of the China bloc, but also because Chiang Kai-shek had now established his Republic of China government on Taiwan. Moreover, every abuse by Mao's government, including the detention of the American consul, Angus Ward, in Mukden, Manchuria, from late 1948 to late 1949, added to Acheson's difficulty in proceeding with recognition.

As long as Chiang was in power on Taiwan, the China bloc could present an alternative to recognizing Mao's government in Beijing. Should the United States therefore protect Taiwan from invasion from the mainland? Or should it wait for Taiwan to fall, in which case recognition might come more easily?

In the State Department Walton Butterworth, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, and George Kerman offered different approaches, designed to prevent the island from coming under Mao's control. Butterworth suggested a United Nations plebiscite that would allow Taiwan's population to vote for either mainland control or some form of UN trusteeship, pending independence.

George Kerman proposed a drastic scheme for ridding the island of the Nationalist soldiers but retaining it as strategically valuable to the United States. He urged the use of American forces to throw Chiang's troops out of Taiwan and the adjoining islands and, under American auspices and protection, create an independent country. This was the way "Theodore Roosevelt might have done it," he suggested, with "resolution, speed, ruthlessness and self-assurance."

Acheson rejected these proposals and recommended that the United States abandon any effort to prevent the island from falling to the Communists. In August 1949, in a meeting with members of the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff also agreed that military measures would be unwise.

Still, pressures mounted on Acheson to support Taiwan from any attack from the mainland Communists. As Acheson wrote to his old friend Archibald MacLeish in early 1950, "Formosa is a subject which seems to draw out the boys like a red haired girl on the beach. It appears that what you want most is what you ain't got."

When Truman signed a Mutual Defense Act that included an appropriation of $75 million for the "general area of China," Chiang's supporters grew hopeful. But they soon discovered that Truman, on Acheson's advice, did not intend to use the money to aid the Nationalist regime on Taiwan.

In a December 23 meeting between the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Acheson argued that "Mao is not a true satellite in that he came to power by his own efforts and was not installed in office by the Soviet army." In his end-of-the-year memorandum to the president he further declared that America should not subsidize attacks by the Nationalists on Mao's government, which "would soon be widely recognized."

By the end of 1949 Acheson had once again persuaded the Joint Chiefs to repeat their opposition to overt military means to protect Taiwan. The JCS now defined an American defensive position based on the Philippines, north to the Ryukyu Islands and to Japan itself.

On January 4, 1950, Acheson advised the president to make known publicly the administration's plan to adopt a hands-off policy toward Taiwan. Truman agreed and the next day announced that the United States would not intercede to prevent a takeover of Taiwan by the Communists. Although the need to combat the spread of communism in Asia was becoming an ever larger goal of American policy, it was by no means a considered policy of containment, as in Greece and Turkey. Acheson did not see the Truman Doctrine as applicable to China.

Along the periphery of Asia, stretching from Korea to Indochina and beyond, the United States would nonetheless look for ways to discourage the Communists from making further inroads. Acheson had said to Philip Jessup in a top-secret memorandum just before the White Paper was released that he wanted to make "absolutely certain that we are neglecting no opportunity that would be within our capabilities to achieve the purpose of halting the spread of totalitarian communism in Asia."

On January 10, 1950, Acheson testified in executive session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As far as recognition of Mao's government was concerned, he saw no reason to move too swiftly at this time. He wanted to see how the Chinese Communists would behave toward Americans in China, and their attitude toward the foreign debts of the Nationalist government, but he warned the senators not to get "this thing mixed up with approval or disapproval." Above all, "We should not [use] military forces of the United States to take, secure, or defend Formosa."

Two days later Acheson delivered an important address on Far Eastern policy to the National Press Club in Washington. Tossing aside the speech the department had prepared, which he felt lacked life and had "no continuity of thought," he had made extensive notes for a new speech at his house in Georgetown.

Acheson's press club speech had little to do with military matters, and indeed he had urged his listeners not "to become obsessed with military considerations." In the main, Acheson was repeating for a larger public what he had been saying privately to members of Congress. He reminded his audience that nobody said "the Nationalist Government fell because it was confronted by overwhelming military force which it could not resist"; on the contrary, Chiang's "support in the country has melted away." He warned Americans against "the folly of ill-conceived adventures on our part," which could "deflect from the Russians to ourselves the righteous anger, and the wrath, and the hatred of the Chinese which must develop. It would be folly to deflect it to ourselves."

Acheson did, however, describe the military security of the Pacific area, pointing out that the American "defensive perimeter" ran from the Aleutian Islands to Japan, then on to Okinawa and the Philippine Islands. In South Korea, on the other hand, "Initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations...." Acheson emphasized, however, that the United States bore "a direct responsibility" for Korea, as it did for Japan.

In thus defining a defense perimeter, Acheson was simply repeating the position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of 1949, one that MacArthur himself had described in a speech on March 1, 1949. While critics later charged that omitting South Korea from the perimeter gave the Soviet Union and its North Korean allies the incentive to attack the south, no serious critic argued this at the time. Acheson's assertion of U.S. responsibility for South Korea and his evocation of UN commitments implied that the United States would indeed act if South Korea was attacked, though it was certainly not a clear and open declaration to defend South Korea.

Four years later Acheson said that "that was the warning which the aggressor disregarded." But he also admitted somewhat disingenuously that "in those days I was fresh and eager and inexperienced"; his own "tough notes" had led to a speech that opened him up "for a very serious misunderstanding."

In executive session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 13, 1950, Acheson was more explicit: "South Korea could take care of any trouble started by North Korea," he said. But if an invasion was started by the USSR or China, "we would take every possible action in the U.N. I do not believe that we would undertake to resist it by force...independently. Of course, if under the Charter action were taken, we would take our part in that, but probably it would not be taken because [the Russians] would veto it."

In contrast to his assault on the White Paper; Walter Lippmann hailed Acheson's speech as one of "great moment throughout Asia." Acheson had spoken with "great sagacity and deep penetration." It seemed to Lippmann that at long last the administration was ready to break with Chiang and recognize the Communist government in Beijing.

Acheson's press club speech had also been reported to Stalin and Mao in Moscow. When Acheson declared that Russia was going to annex parts of China, a process "nearly complete in Manchuria," this outraged Stalin because it was very close to the truth.

Stalin now had to demonstrate to Mao that he had no intention of seizing Chinese territory; Mao, in turn, could not allow himself to be portrayed as a weak leader who permitted himself to be used as a puppet of Stalin. For Mao, Acheson's hands-off stand on Taiwan was welcome news; for Stalin, it might portend a tacit understanding between Beijing and Washington.

Molotov, now a vice chairman of the Council of Ministers, proposed that Stalin and Mao issue official statements against the "shameless lie" of the U.S. secretary of state regarding Soviet designs on Manchuria and Mongolia. From the language of their statement, there is no doubt that Stalin and Mao coordinated their replies. But the Russian reply to Acheson's speech was far ruder in tone and insult. This allowed the State Department to promote the idea in the press that there were indeed strains between the two leaders. It seemed that Acheson had been on the mark.

On the other hand, Acheson may well have underestimated Stalin's interest in clearing up any divisive issues between the Soviet Union and China in the face of growing Western power, especially in light of the recently concluded NATO pact. Moreover, while identifying nationalism as the principal force in Asian politics Acheson appeared to discount the possibility that Chinese communism might also be a legitimate expression of Asian nationalism.

On January 14, 1950, Mao's government seized American consular property in Shanghai and Beijing, which led to the withdrawal of all American personnel from the Chinese mainland that spring. A month later Moscow and Beijing signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, a defense pact. Yet despite this rapprochement between Russia and China, Acheson did not give up on the hope of abandoning Chiang, recognizing the People's Republic of China, and then weaning it away from a Soviet alliance.

On March 29, 1950, Acheson once again testified in executive session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "If the devil himself runs China," he said, "if he is an independent devil, that is infinitely better than if he is a stooge of Moscow, or China comes under Russia." Despite the Sino-Soviet agreement signed in February, "the Chinese, inevitably, we believe, will come into conflict with Moscow."

Acheson also told the senators that he was especially wary of Chiang Kai-shek's adventurism, the risk that Chiang, who was running a war against the mainland by "bombing Nanking and other cities," would drag the United States into conflict with China proper.

According to Acheson, Chiang "believed World War III is absolutely inevitable," in which case "the United States will have to go back and conquer China, and he will come riding in on our coat tails." As far as Acheson was concerned, Chiang was actually inviting Mao to invade Taiwan. "The Communists would be criminally crazy," he advised the senators, "if they did not put an end to [Chiang's island bastion] just as soon as possible."

Had this happened, Acheson believed that he could have overcome opposition to recognizing Communist China. He certainly hoped to drive a wedge between the Chinese and the Russians. On the other hand, he was never clear on whether he wanted to persuade Mao to become an Asian Tito or to encourage the Chinese people to overthrow the Communists by depicting them as Moscow's puppets. Nor is it evident that an alternative policy of recognizing mainland China as the legitimate government of China would have been acceptable to Congress.

Nonetheless, Acheson's approach of waiting for the dust to settle, moving slowly in hopes that events in the Far East would ease his task of recognizing Communist China, of driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, and of containing communism on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom was each day made far more costly by the China bloc's accusations that he had "lost China."

Copyright © 1998 by James Chace

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2002

    A Flattering Portrait of a Foreign Policy Giant

    James Chace's detailed history of the life of our most influential Secretary of State in the modern era is a great overview of American foreign policy in the second half of the 20th Century. Although generally treating its subject in a positive light, Chace's book points out instances where history shows that Acheson erred. Moreover, the book gives the reader glimpses of Acheson's interactions with the major figures of American foreign policy from the 1940's through the 1960's. Although the book is densely packed with details, as a primer and overview of the foreign policy challenges of the cold war, the book excels.

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