Robert L. Beisner: His biography of Acheson reviewed on the front page of the NYT Book Review by Kissinger





Dean Acheson was perhaps the most vilified secretary of state in modern American history. Robert L. Beisner, in “Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War,” his sweeping and thoughtful account of Acheson’s tenure, cites a scholar who, with meticulous pedantry, discovered that during the four years — 1949-53 — that Acheson served as secretary of state, Republicans made 1,268 antagonistic statements about him on the Senate floor and only seven favorable ones (one wonders for what).

History has treated Acheson more kindly. Accolades for him have become bipartisan. Secretaries of state appointed by the party of his erstwhile tormentors have described him as a role model; Condoleezza Rice is the most recent example. Thirty-five years after his death, Acheson has achieved iconic status. This is all the more remarkable in view of his out-of-scale personality, so at odds with the present period, in which eminence seems to be tolerable only in the garb of the commonplace....

For someone like myself, who knew Acheson, Beisner’s portrait does not always capture the vividness of his personality, which emerges too much as a list of eccentricities. Acheson’s relationship with the Nixon White House, and to President Nixon himself, is too cavalierly dismissed as the result of ego and an old man’s vanity. As a participant in all these meetings, I considered that relationship an example of Acheson’s generosity of spirit. Nixon had made essentially unforgivable attacks on Acheson during his 1952 campaign for vice president. But when he reached out to Acheson, it was received with the consideration Acheson felt he owed to the office, as a form of duty to the country. Acheson dealt with the issues Nixon put before him thoughtfully, precisely, without any attempt at flattery, in pursuit of his conception of national service and, unlike some other outside advisers, without offering advice that had not been solicited.

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. He was impatient with relativists who sought surcease from the complexity of decisions by postulating the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. His values were absolute, but he knew also that statesmen are judged by history beyond contemporary debates, and this requires a willingness to achieve great goals in stages, each of which is probably imperfect by absolute standards.

This was the theme of an Acheson speech at the War College in August 1951: “There was not ‘one more river to cross’ but ‘countless problems stretching into the future.’ ... Americans must reconcile themselves to ‘limited objectives’ and work in congress with others, for an essential part of American power was the ‘ability to evoke support from others — an ability quite as important as the capacity to compel.’ ”

The importance of that perception has not changed with the passage of time.



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