Dean Acheson was President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State. That title, chosen in 1969, still applies. Acheson and Truman helped to build today’s world. Acheson could see some of the results as he wrote, twenty years on.
It’s hard to recall or imagine just how broken the world was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Europe had just finished a thirty-year run of two wars, monetary instability, the deliberate victimization of entire peoples, and the rise of an ideology that promised social justice and delivered dictatorship. The Soviet Union had lost millions of people, some of them in purges before the latest war. Portions of Asia were devastated, along with a civil war in China. European colonialism had lost its grip, leaving opportunity and enmity in its wake. Only the Americas had not experienced the wholesale destruction of cities and industry. Growing out of the ruins was a nuclear rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Truman and Acheson, with many others, built a different world. The idea was to end the rivalries that drove those terrible thirty years. Difficulties immediately presented themselves: the Soviet Union absorbed or controlled a number of European countries and was indurate against cooperation. France was terrified of and resistant to any but a totally prostrate Germany, which was now on that border of Soviet control. Although the Soviet Union had been exhausted by the war, they were able to support their Chinese and North Korean allies in yet another.
The solution to ending those rivalries was a framework of international organizations to encourage cooperation and arbitration where cooperation failed. The United Nations, of course, along with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and an organization for Europe to deal with commerce in coal and steel, two essential materials whose manufacture and sale continued to cause arguments. That last grew into the European Union, which was what its originators hoped.
The shape of today’s world, for good and bad, was formed in that decade between 1945 and 1955. The Soviet Union had to have the nuclear weapons that the United States had, which caused Truman to decide to go ahead with the development of the hydrogen bomb, which led to the arms race that we are still dialing down. Turkey still hovers between Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Israel is still fighting the Palestinians. Pakistan and India were separated in 1947 with much human relocation, which probably would be called ethnic cleansing in today’s world, as would the relocation of the Palestinians. Those scars linger. Then-Communist nations have opened up: the Soviet Union is gone, and China has adopted limited capitalism. Iran was a problem then, too. From his 1969 viewpoint, Acheson felt it necessary to devote a chapter to the evolution of conflicts in southeast Asia, the leftovers of the French colonial empire. Empire left the Middle East and Africa weak, and those countries have not yet recovered.
The book clarified for me the interactions among people whose names I heard when I was growing up. My parents were registered Republicans, of the Northeastern liberal variety, now an extinct breed. My father listened faithfully to Drew Pearson’s radio program and would curse out whomever he found to be the enemy of the week. As I grew older, we had lively dinner-table conversations about current events. But during the time Acheson wrote about, I couldn't fit it all together.
Acheson was clearly a Democrat, but he is extremely respectful of his opponents in a way we barely see today. He doesn’t vilify Joseph McCarthy, who was after Acheson’s scalp, or even devote a lot of space to him. The Republicans were capable of craziness and obstruction then too, but it wasn’t their only mode of operation.
The entire memoir is of a style that is also extinct, written from notes and memoranda and not much embellished. This can make it dull reading at times; I found that concentrating on the events and their latter-day sequelae improved my ability to read it, which flagged for two long hiatuses until I set a schedule of at least two chapters a night. Fortunately, the chapters are short.
Acheson’s style is not terribly complex but stuffy. There were many places that I wished he had been more personal, but that was not how things were done then.
George Bush felt that it was his mission to disassemble the structures that had kept the peace and made the world a more prosperous place. He partly succeeded, but the post-war statesmen built a robust structure. However, by his actions, Bush damaged the great prestige that America had accumulated by its leadership in knitting the world back together.
With the Bush financial collapse, we now have an opportunity and duty to make things better than they were before, as was done by Acheson and his colleagues. Today’s devastation is not as total as the result of thirty years of war, but that many things were done badly and could get worse. There are small signs that our leaders may be capable of rebuilding and renewing. I was too young to be able to remember how the events that Acheson describes looked day to day. He reports enough to-ing and fro-ing in Congress and close calls that I suspect it might have looked the way things do now: jumbled, confused, not able to get to clear solutions. Twenty years later he could see that most of what he had worked for had blossomed. Perhaps we will have to wait twenty years.