Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War

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Dean Acheson was one of the most influential Secretaries of State in U.S. history, presiding over American foreign policy during a pivotal era—the decade after World War II when the American Century slipped into high gear. During his vastly influential career, Acheson spearheaded the greatest foreign policy achievements in modern times, ranging from the Marshall Plan to the establishment of NATO.

In this acclaimed biography, Robert L. Beisner paints an indelible portrait of one of the key figures of the last half-century. In a book filled with insight based on research in government archives, memoirs, letters, and diaries, Beisner illuminates Acheson's major triumphs, including the highly underrated achievement of converting West Germany and Japan from mortal enemies to prized allies, and does not shy away from examining his missteps. But underlying all his actions, Beisner shows, was a tough-minded determination to outmatch the strength of the Soviet bloc—indeed, to defeat the Soviet Union at every turn. The book also sheds light on Acheson's friendship with Truman—one, a bourbon-drinking mid-Westerner with a homespun disposition, the other, a mustachioed Connecticut dandy who preferred perfect martinis.

Over six foot tall, with steel blue, "merry, searching eyes" and a "wolfish" grin, Dean Acheson was an unforgettable character—intellectually brilliant, always debonair, and tough as tempered steel. This lustrous portrait of an immensely accomplished and colorful life is the epitome of the biographer's art.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...thoughtful and well-researched account of Acheson's years as undersecretary and then secretary of state shows him to be a man of sweeping views but pragmatic and definable policies."—New York Times Book Review
Walter Isaacson
Acheson has been blessed with good and generally sympathetic biographers: Gaddis Smith, David McLellan, James Chace and, for his later years, Douglas Brinkley. The man himself conveyed his own flair in what may be the most luminous memoir by any American statesman, Present at the Creation, published in 1969…Robert L. Beisner, a diplomatic historian whose previous works have focused on the 19th century, has now produced a welcome addition to this shelf, a solidly researched and balanced tome that focuses mainly on Acheson's years as the undersecretary and then secretary of state. It serves as the perfect companion to Present at the Creation. It is not as rollicking and witty, but Mr. Beisner's prodigious mining of archives and oral histories makes it actually far more reliable and accurate than Acheson's martini-lubricated memories.
—The New York Times
Henry Kissinger
…sweeping and thoughtful account of Acheson's tenure…Acheson emerges from the Beisner book as the greatest secretary of state of the postwar period in the sweep of his design, his ability to implement it, the extraordinary associates with whom he surrounded himself and the nobility of his personal conduct.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Although Acheson (1893-1971) was a life-long Democrat who served four presidents, Harry Truman's flamboyant and sharp-tongued secretary of state is admired on the right as an architect of American Cold War foreign policy, most famously for the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. Historian Beisner's exhaustive treatment of Acheson's long, influential career reveals the tangled roots of contemporary policy and political discourse especially the purported links between the unilateral projection of American might and our national security during and after WWII. A crucial and complex figure, Acheson was not the earliest "cold warrior," though later among the staunchest, and not easily reduced to left or right in the conflict's dissonant strategic and moral calculus. A deep wariness with regard to the atomic bomb, for instance, did not necessarily temper his involvement in developing U.S. nuclear arms policy, including deployment of the more powerful H-bomb. His early urging of engagement in Vietnam later gave way to counseling Johnson to end it. Chronicling rather than criticizing the assumptions undergirding the postwar period's rapidly evolving bipolar order, this thorough biography offers insight into perhaps one of the least understood fields of government action at the outset of a momentous era that's still, in many respects, very much underway. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
This masterful account of the iconic American diplomat tracesAcheson's extraordinary State Department years, from World War II planning and the Bretton Woods accords through the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Pact, and the Korean War. In exhaustive detail, Beisner reconstructs Acheson's pivotal role in fashioning responses to a cascade of Cold War crises and in laying down the institutional foundations of the modern postwar order. He is particularly good at bringing to life the complex personal relationships that took shape among the cast of officials surrounding Acheson; Averell Harriman, George Kennan, George Marshall, Paul Nitze, and many others appear as both colleagues and rivals as the grand policy debates unfold. Yet it is Acheson's working relationship with Harry Truman — enduring, quietly effective, and built on deep mutual loyalty and respect — that commands center stage and drives the story. Beisner's portrait also shows the great diplomat, a tough-minded realist in many ways, as something of a Wilsonian internationalist, reflected in Acheson's convictions about expanding the United States' "environment of freedom," fighting communism through building progressive societies, and exercising U.S. power through an array of postwar institutions. If Acheson had a core strategic belief, it was that the United States must defend its interests from a "situation of strength," which meant being uninhibited about exercising power but also patiently building partnerships and spheres of free-world cooperation. Beisner makes clear that Acheson's larger-than-life reputation is well deserved, but his book may be of more enduring value in capturing the distinctive geopolitical mindset of the 1940s — a blend of realism and liberal idealism — that drove the United States in its greatest foreign policy moments.
Library Journal
Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Truman from 1949 to 1953, some of the most tumultuous years in modern American history, has already been the subject of several excellent biographies, e.g., James Chace's Acheson, but his larger-than-life career has finally met its best historian. Beisner (Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900) has spent his retirement from academia immersed in the sources of the early Cold War and has produced a remarkable study. Taking advantage of extensive secondary sources as well as the ever-growing number of oral histories and other primary sources, Beisner has synthesized a wealth of information into a brilliantly crafted narrative that explores not only the policymaking apparatus Acheson created in the State Department but, more important, the personal relationship that developed between the cerebral and urbane Acheson and the homespun and tough-talking Midwestern president. In a period as uncertain and dangerous as those postwar years, Acheson and Truman worked side by side addressing the Soviet Union under Stalin, the rise to power of Mao in China, and the steady progress toward economic and political recovery of the two major defeated Axis powers. Beisner has given Acheson the biography he deserves, and we are all the richer for this outstanding contribution to our literature on the early Cold War years. Highly, highly recommended.-Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195045789
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/16/2006
  • Pages: 832
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert L. Beisner is Professor of History Emeritus at American University. A former president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, he lives in Washington, DC.

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Table of Contents

Definitions of Acronyms and Abbreviations
1. Introduction: "The Shiniest Fish that Ever Came Out of the Sea"
Part I
2. Rare Meat: Adding Reach to Power
3. Patterns of Peril: Joining the Cold Warriors
4. Rome and Carthage: The Truman Doctrine
5. The Marshall Plan and the Return to Private Life
Part II
6. The Inner and Outer Acheson
7. Acheson, the President, and the State Department
8. Keeping the Americans In, the Russians Out, and the Germans Down, 1949
9. Strategy in Europe: Backing the West, Probing the East
10. Looking for Chance in China, 1949
11. Neither Wood nor Ivory: Checkmated in China, 1949-1950
12. Other Early Encounters with Asia and the Middle East
Part III
13. Weapons: The H-Bomb
14. Words: NSC-68, Public Opinion, and Total Diplomacy
15. Real Diplomacy, in Europe, 1949-1950
16. Plunge into the Unkown: The United States, Indochina, and China on the Eve of the Korean War
17. Friends in Place: Acheson and Alger Hiss
18. Evil Days
Part IV
19. Testing Ground-Korea
20. In the Cockpit
21. Prodding Evolution with Action: German Rearmament
22. Acceleration from a Running Start
Part V
23. In Thrall: Ironic Failures in Korea
24. Job's Comforter and the Mad Satrap
25. Captives of War
26. At Different Ends of the Triangle: Domestic Debates, European Armies, British Allies
Part VI
27. Command in Japan
28. Failure in Indochina and China
29. Razor Edge Sensibilities: ANZUS and India
30. Falling between Two Stools: The Middle East, North Africa, and Africa
31. Picking Up Sticks in Egypt and Iran
32. Jousting with Mosadeq, Waiting for Nasser
33. Latin America: Critical, but not Serious
Part VII
34. Lisbon to Letdown: The Fate of the EDC
35. Apples of Discord: Germany and the Soviet Union, 1952
36. Scope for the Exercise of Every Vital Power

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