A classic book revisited: Acheson’s ‘Present at the Creation’ reminds us of how our government should work
Dean Gooderham Acheson, the son of Canadian immigrants, graduate of Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law, was probably the most consequential American diplomat of the twentieth century.
By Col. Robert Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense reviewer of books we should re-read
We were visiting friends with a well-stocked library in the guest room, and to read myself to sleep I pulled down a dusty copy of Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson’s memoir of his years at the State Department. It was the wrong choice for an easy night’s sleep, and hours later I was still reading, entranced.
Dean Gooderham Acheson, the son of Canadian immigrants, graduate of Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law, was probably the most consequential American diplomat of the twentieth century. He did not suffer fools gladly, regardless of position, and his tenure was sometimes controversial. Asked by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to join the State Department in 1941, as a relatively junior officer he implemented much of American economic policy against the Axis during the war, then served as assistant secretary under General George Marshall and as secretary of state to President Harry Truman. As Truman’s secretary from 1949 to 1953 he became the primary spokesman for America’s leadership in the world and for the creation of the post-World War II international system that exists today. Present at the Creation is an insightful, absorbing and even occasionally humorous insider’s guide to how that system was created. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1970 and is a riveting read, especially these days with a new administration that doesn’t seem to grasp — to put it kindly — the role of diplomacy in the world.
It’s useful to remember that the international “system” as we know it today didn’t exist before World War II and would have been unthinkable except for the cataclysm of the war, the deployment of the atom bomb, and the aggression of an implacably hostile Soviet Union.
After August of 1945 half the world was in ruins. The United States, dominant in the world, only slowly realized the extent to which Europe was wholly devastated. Civilization had virtually collapsed. In the winter of 1946 Europeans, especially in Belgium, starved in the streets. There was no economy, no money, no food, little or no government. Germany, the heart of Europe, lay in ruins, prostrate and occupied. Even the British, the prewar grantors of European security, were exhausted, with their population surviving on food rationing (which lasted until 1954). The sun was setting — violently, in some cases — on the Empire. And the Soviet Union was on the move.
In 1947, the British notified the United States they could no longer bear the cost of opposing communist aggression in Greece and Turkey; Acheson, assistant secretary to the temporarily absent Cordell Hull, saw his opportunity and walked the communique across the street to the White House, where he found a president willing to pick up the burden. Beginning from that moment, the United States assumed the mantle of world leadership against the Soviets, and the Truman-Acheson team took the leading role.
The first steps were tentative and exploratory. Truman and Acheson were in unknown territory, leading a country tired of war and ready to revert to its prewar isolation. “History is written backwards but lived forwards,” Acheson says, reflecting on the United States’ leap into the unknown. American leadership was never foreordained. It might not have happened, but for Harry Truman, an accidental president from a small town in Missouri; General George Marshall, who became Truman’s secretary of state (and, later, his secretary of defense,) and Acheson. He replaced Marshall at State and became Truman’s longest-serving secretary of state, a New England Brahmin with a sharp wit and sharper tongue (that got him in trouble) a genius for policy and the patience to endure the grinding, exhausting consultations and routines that are actually how policy is made (ask John Kerry).
When the reader first hefts the book, he or she may look askance at 737 pages thickly packed with conferences, communiqués, names dimly remembered – Adenauer, Russell, Eden – and dread to open the cover. But Creation turns out to be an immensely readable book, enlivened by wit and remembrances of great events, like lend-lease, Bretton Woods, the long gestation that begot NATO, the Berlin Blockade, the European Coal and Steel Community, McCarthyism, the West German Republic, the Japanese Peace Treaty, Korea, and the relief of General Douglas McArthur. Acheson was at the center of it all.
Aside from history, why is this book still important? Two large lessons leap off the pages.
This is the way government should work. During the brief bipartisan lull immediately after the war and even in the fiercely partisan campaigning prior to the election of 1948 and afterward, the business of the United States was conducted by serious, experienced people in all departments across the government. Thanks to a vigorous press, it was also conducted in full view of the American people according to the technology of the time. Creation’s narrative makes it plain that the grownups were in charge. The three branches functioned more or less routinely according to their internal and external rules; Congress, particularly the Senate, was held under the discipline of the “old bull” seniority system and, thus focused, stood loudly and jealously coequal with the executive.
Though his relationship with certain Senators was testy — he was once physically restrained from swinging a roundhouse at one of his tormentors — Acheson deeply appreciated and understood the Congressional role; he spent hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was careful to build relationships with the Senate leadership of both parties. The executive offices and cabinet were staffed with competent, experienced people. The president was deeply involved in policy and in congressional relations, both formally and informally (Acheson frequently walked across the street to the White House for guidance or to report). As dissent grew in the late 1940s from isolation-minded Senators and others, Truman strongly and publicly backed up his secretary of state, who was often in hot water. Further, supported by his critical mass of experienced coworkers, Acheson performed the most essential duty of a top-ranked diplomat: He thought and planned four or five steps ahead, so that events moved at his direction, and not the other way around. Acheson stood like a ringmaster at the center of a complex diplomatic and political circus. He and his hand-picked assistants succeeded because he was working with experts across the government, and, with a few exceptions, diplomatic equals in allied countries as they sorted out the complex postwar world.
They got the relationship right between diplomacy and war. Though present-day policymakers often overlook the relationship of politics to war (despite extensive and expensive experience), in Truman’s time State’s seniority in government and primacy in national strategic policy was accepted (sometimes grudgingly) by the Pentagon. A particularly poignant passage in the book refers to the period when General Marshall became secretary of defense, having been already secretary of state, and Acheson’s boss. His former chief, Acheson writes with embarrassment, deferred to the secretary of state in every way, even to walking on his left. But Marshall’s disciplined understanding of State’s role expedited development of strategic policy in those demanding days. He and Acheson brought the secretary of state, secretary of defense and their staffs — including the joint chiefs — together for planning. “The phrases ‘from a military point of view’ and ‘from a political point of view’ were excluded from our talks,” Acheson writes. “No such dichotomy existed. Each of us had our tactical and strategic problems, but they were interconnected, not separate.” The close relationship of State and Defense was tested during the Korean War, in Douglas MacArthur’s relief, in the formation of NATO, and in the Japanese peace accords, all successfully and with Acheson at center stage.
Clearly, I believe this is a must-read book not only for historians, but also for anyone interested in national policy, diplomacy, or military strategy. It is essential, especially today, to understand how America came to play the central role in the world, and the consequences of failure. Acheson was “writing history forward” when the history of the world could easily have gone in other, and less favorable directions. He truly was not only present at the creation, but was the midwife as well.
Bob Killebrew is a gentleman and a scholar.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons