Dean Acheson

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Dean Acheson (1893-1971), was the American diplomat who was primarily responsibly for shaping American foreign policy during the Truman administration in the early Cold War years, 1945-1952, including the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Korean War, and the implementation of the containment strategy.

Early career

Acheson was born in Middletown, Connecticut, April 11, 1893. His father was the prominent Episcopalian bishop of Connecticut; both parents were Canadians and he had a slight British accent and demeanor that annoyed his Anglophobic critics. They accused him with some justification of having a pro-British bias. He was educated at the Groton School, graduated from Yale College in 1915, and took his LLB law degree from Harvard Law School in 1918. From 1919 to 1921 was clerk to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. He practiced law with Covington, Burling and Rublee in Washington, starting in 1921, whenever he was not in government service. He became partner in 1926, with a specialty in international law.

Government service

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Acheson undersecretary of the Treasury, on May 19, 1933; when the Secretary fell ill he suddenly found himself acting secretary despite his ignorance of finance. Because of his opposition to FDR's plan to inflate the dollar by controlling gold prices, he was forced to resign in November 1933 and resumed his law practice. In 1939-1940 he headed a committee to study the operation of administrative bureaus in the federal government. Acheson was appointed assistant secretary of state in 1941, and in 1945 he was appointed undersecretary of state, the number 2 job, which he continued to hold 1945-47 under President Harry S. Truman.

Cold War

As late as 1945 Acheson sought détente with the Soviet Union. What changed his thinking was Stalin's blatant grab for regional hegemony in Eastern Europe and in Iran. When he realized the Soviets were working outside traditional diplomatic channels, Acheson became a devoted and influential cold warrior.

In 1946, as chairman of a special committee to prepare a plan for the international control of atomic energy, he wrote the Acheson-Lilienthal report. He resigned as undersecretary of state, June 30, 1947, and resumed his law practice. On Jan. 7, 1949, Acheson was appointed secretary of state to succeed George C. Marshall. Earlier, Acheson had promoted UNRRA and the Bretton Woods Conference and he had also been closely involved in the creation of the Marshall Plan. After 1946, his attitude toward the Soviet Union had changed from one of conciliation to one of containment. As secretary, he was instrumental in creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949-1950 and in engineering the Japanese peace treaty, signed in 1951. He was also responsible for building up the European Defense Community and for implementing U.S. policy in the Korean War.

Korean war

Acheson's speech on January 12, 1950, before the National Press Club seemed to say that South Korea was beyond the line and that American support for the new Syngman Rhee government in South Korea would be limited. Critics later charged that Acheson's ambiguity provided Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung with reason to believe the US would not intervene if they invaded the South. However, evidence from Korean and Soviet archives demonstrates that Stalin and Kim's decisions were not influenced by Acheson's speech.

He retired as secretary of state on Jan. 20, 1953. Eisenhower ignored him but he later served as a foreign policy adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.


  • Beisner, Robert L. Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (2006), 800pp; a standard scholarly biography; covers 1945-53 only
  • Beisner, Robert L. "Patterns of Peril: Dean Acheson Joins the Cold Warriors, 1945-46." Diplomatic History 1996 20(3): 321-355. Issn: 0145-2096 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Brinkley, Douglas. Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71. 1992. 429 pp.
  • Brinkley, Douglas, ed. Dean Acheson and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy. 1993. 271 pp. essays by scholars
  • Chace, James. Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World. 1998. 512 pp.
  • Frazier, Robert. "Acheson and the Formulation of the Truman Doctrine" Journal of Modern Greek Studies 1999 17(2): 229-251. online at Project Muse
  • Harper, John Lamberton. American Visions of Europe: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George F. Kennan, and Dean G. Acheson. 1994. 378 pp.
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. The Long Entanglement: NATO's First Fifty Years (1999) online edition
  • Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1997) 864pp; covers Acheson and colleagues Charles E. Bohlen, W. Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John J. McCloy; excerpt and text search
  • Leffler, Melvyn P. "Strategy, Diplomacy, and the Cold War: the United States, Turkey, and NATO, 1945-1952" Journal of American History 1985 71(4): 807-825. in JSTOR* McGlothlen, Ronald L. Controlling the Waves: Dean Acheson and US Foreign Policy in Asia (1993) online edition
  • McNay, John T. Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy (2001)
  • Merrill, Dennis. "The Truman Doctrine: Containing Communism and Modernity" Presidential Studies Quarterly 2006 36(1): 27-37. online edition at Blackwell Synergy
  • Offner, Arnold A. "'Another Such Victory': President Truman, American Foreign Policy, and the Cold War." Diplomatic History 1999 23(2): 127-155. online in Blackwell Synergy
  • Offner, Arnold A. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War. (2002) 640pp, highly negative excerpts and text search
  • Spalding, Elizabeth Edwards. The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, And the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism (2006)

Primary sources

  • Acheson, Dean. A Democrat Looks at His Party (1955)
  • Acheson, Dean. A Citizen Looks at Congress (1957)
  • Acheson, Dean. Sketches from Life of Men I Have Known (1961)
  • Acheson, Dean. Morning and Noon (1965)
  • Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department(1969), 816pp; highly revealing memoir; won the Pulitzer prize; excerpt and text search
  • McLellan, David S., and David C. Acheson, eds. Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson (1980)

See also