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Dean Acheson and the Creation of an American World Order

Dean Acheson and the Creation of an American World Order by Robert J. McMahon. Potomac Books, 2008, 257 pp.

Robert J. McMahon has written a compact and very readable biography that critically assesses the life, career, and accomplishments of Dean Acheson, who can justifiably be called the principal architect of the non-communist world order which the administration of Harry Truman established in the wake of World War II. As a top State Department official from 1941 to 1947 and as Truman’s secretary of state from 1949–1953, Acheson shaped many of the key US foreign policy initiatives of those years, including the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the rebuilding of Germany and Japan, Franco-German reconciliation, America’s military intervention in the Korea War, and the subsequent decision to launch a massive expansion of US military power. More than any other individual, Acheson was responsible for the design and implementation of the ultimately triumphant US strategy of containing the expansion of Soviet power and influence. Not for nothing did Acheson, never known for his modesty, title his memoirs Present at the Creation.

Dean Acheson and the Creation of an American World Order is the first in a Potomac Books series about leaders who have shaped the history of international relations during the modern era. Designed to be short, evocative, and provocative, the series seeks to place leaders in the context of their times and to examine their values, perceptions, ambitions, ability to overcome constraints, and qualities of leadership. McMahon’s book on Acheson does all of these things exceptionally well, and one hopes that his fine scholarship and literary skill will set the standard for the remainder of the series.

McMahon, the Mershon distinguished professor at Ohio State University and the author of several books on the Cold War and the Vietnam War, is both admiring and critical of his subject. Acheson was an exemplar of the then-Eurocentric American foreign policy elite whose educational trajectory—Groton, Yale, Harvard Law—catapulted him to a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and then into the prestigious Washington law firm of Covington and Burling. He was thoroughly knowledgeable of and sure-footed on economic and security challenges in Europe, including the nature of the Soviet threat to Western Europe. He was also rightly concerned in the late 1940s—and here he tangled with Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and Truman’s severe underfunding of America’s armed forces—that a potentially disastrous gap was opening between the administration’s expanding foreign policy ambitions and the country’s military capacity to back them up.

However, on Asian matters—except for Japan’s reconstruction as a US ally—Acheson’s judgment was faulty more often than not. Dean Rusk, who loyally served Acheson as assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs, later said that Acheson “did not give a damn about the brown, yellow, black, and red people in various parts of the world.” In 1941, as assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, Acheson assumed the Japanese would bow to US economic coercion (especially termination of US oil exports, upon which Japan was critically dependent) because, in his words at the time, “no rational Japanese could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.”

Twenty-four years later, a no-less-hawkish elder statesman Acheson vigorously supported the Johnson administration’s decision to commit US ground combat troops to the Vietnam War. But Acheson’s worst misjudgment in Asia was his hearty support, following Gen Douglas MacArthur’s war-reversing landing at Inchon, South Korea, for pushing on into North Korea to reunify the entire peninsula under US auspices. The decision to cross the 38th parallel and drive on to the Chinese border along the Yalu River—despite mounting evidence of impending massive Chinese intervention—was the most calamitous foreign policy blunder of the Truman presidency, and it is one for which Acheson bears heavy responsibility given the degree to which Truman relied on his secretary of state’s advice. McMahon rightly asks: “Why would a man renowned for his probity, prudence, and maturity of judgment act so rashly in this instance? Why did he not recognize the manifest dangers of the administration’s military policy and at least inject some cautionary words into the internal debate? And, why would Acheson so cavalierly discount Chinese and third-party warnings while lending his support to a headlong march to the Yalu that risked so much for relatively little gain?” McMahon believes the answers lie in Acheson’s personal history of successful risk-taking, disdain for China’s military prowess (widespread throughout the US military and foreign policy establishment), and the “temptation of a huge payoff” for the United States and especially the Truman administration, which for years had been victimized by Republican charges of being “soft” on communism at home and abroad.

One of the many strengths of McMahon’s biography is his situation of Truman’s foreign policy in the context of the domestic politics of the Truman years, politics that were marked by popular anticommunist hysteria and vicious personal attacks on Truman and Acheson by the likes of such red-baiters a Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, and Pat McCarran. For these and other Republican leaders, the policy of containment was simply appeasement by another name. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt had “given” Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin at the infamous Yalta Conference of February 1945, and his successor had not only “lost” China to Mao’s communist hordes but also tolerated communist infiltration of the State Department. In the minds of Republican populists like McCarthy, the “Red Dean” Acheson came to epitomize everything that was wrong with American foreign policy, monopolized as it was (in their view) by arrogant elitists who were all too willing to comprise with communists and communism.

McMahon’s Dean Acheson and the Creation of an American World Order authoritatively captures the strengths and weaknesses of the greatest secretary of state since World War II as well as the interplay of economics, diplomacy, and force in American statecraft during the Truman years.

Jeffrey Record

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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