Truman and Acheson: Friendship and Foreign Policy

April 9, 2024
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Photograph of President Truman sitting in his limousine with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, 1951, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Dean Acheson would be one of the first, if not the first, to be shot by the enemies of liberty and Christianity,” President Harry S. Truman declared, “if communism were to prevail in the world.” It was December of 1950, and Truman was facing mounting pressure from the opposition to dismiss his Secretary of State – and loyal friend – Dean Acheson. Truman and Acheson had been working together for five years, creating the United States’ Cold War foreign policy. Acheson, the “architect” of this post-World War II interventionist policy, was under attack by the Republican party, accused of having communist sympathies, ties to espionage, and knowingly employing over 200 communists at the State Department. For Truman, the Republicans had  impugned not only Truman’s Secretary of State, but one of his most cherished friends.

Secretary of State Acheson’s Roots & Career

Dean Acheson was an excellent complement to Harry Truman, and their external differences did not go unnoticed by their peers, the general public, and historians. A decade younger than Truman, Acheson was born in Connecticut in 1893. His Canadian mother was a scion of a whisky distilling family, and his British father, a veteran of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, was an Episcopal priest. Acheson attended Groton School, followed by Yale and then Harvard Law School. Acheson clerked for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis from 1919-1921 before working at a D.C. law firm until President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Acheson the Undersecretary of the Treasury in 1933. Later, Acheson was appointed Assistant Secretary of State in 1941, and Truman promoted him to Under-Secretary of State in 1944, and finally to Secretary of State in 1949.

The Truman-Acheson Bond

For Truman, Acheson was not only his “good right hand,” but his “top brain man.” No one occupying a position of power or influence came close to the bond that Truman had with Acheson, “whose views overall, whose sense of proportion, timing, sense of history, whose personal code and convictions concerning America’s role in the world carried such a weight with the President […] whose trust and friendship were to mean as much in the long run.”[1] 

Truman’s Loyalty to Acheson

Truman, ever aware of history’s knack for rhyming rather than repeating, asserted that the Republican call for Acheson to be sacked was, “the same thing that happened to Seward. President Lincoln was asked by a group of Republicans to dismiss Secretary of State Seward. He refused. So do I refuse to dismiss Secretary Acheson.” Truman, who then had the lowest approval rating in American history was not being self-aggrandizing in comparing himself to America’s most beloved president. Like Lincoln, he did not acquiesce to public pressure, and stood by his decisions, however unpopular.

By refusing to dismiss Acheson and by comparing him to Seward, Truman was not only asserting Acheson’s allegiance to the United States, but he was also doubling down on his administration’s foreign policy, and defending a friend. Three years later, as both men left office, Truman wrote to Acheson expressing his regard for Acheson’s work and compared him again to Seward. “I would place you among the very greatest of the Secretaries of State this country has had. Neither Jefferson nor Seward showed more cool courage and steadfast judgment.”

Truman-Acheson Friendship Pre- and Post-Presidency

Truman and Acheson’s respect and loyalty to one another played out in their personal and professional lives, despite disagreements in both spheres. Acheson had cautioned Truman against recognizing the fledgling State of Israel, believing that doing so did not serve American interests. They agreed to disagree without pulling punches, but always keeping their dialogue civil.

Truman and Acheson corresponded for eighteen years after they both left the White House in 1953, until Acheson’s death. In Truman biographer David McCullough’s introduction to Affection and Trust, a volume of the Truman-Acheson correspondence (many letters of which are in the Shapell Manuscript Collection), McCullough remarks that “there has been nothing like it in our history, except for the post-presidential exchange, known as the Retirement Series, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” of which Acheson was acutely aware.[2] That reverence for and resonance of American history was yet another interest that brought both men together. And yet, unlike Jefferson and Adams who primarily discussed heady topics such as political philosophy, the dominant theme between Truman and Acheson was their friendship. Each constantly expressed gratitude for the friendship of the other. “Above all, it seems, each wanted the other to know how much their friendship mattered.”

Much of the correspondence between the men surrounded Truman’s memoirs, with Acheson critiquing Truman’s drafts. The truth was of paramount importance to both men, and they had both resolved to be truthful to one another always. Acheson’s ability to speak the truth was also a testament to Truman’s willingness to hear it. In recalling their time together working on foreign policy as they crafted  Truman’s legacy, Acheson acted just as he had in office: he told Truman what he needed to hear, and not what he wanted to hear. As Truman wrote to him, “Damn it Dean, you are one man who can say to me what you please any time, anywhere on any subject.”

Foreign Policy: Cold War, Communism, & Containment

And so Acheson had. He and Truman guided the United States from the end of World War II into a new era of foreign relations dominated by the Cold War and intervention policies. The Truman administration’s primary concern was not to defeat, but to stop the spread of communism, known even then as “containment.” Their strategy was exemplified by landmark policies – the Truman Doctrine, The Marshall Plan, and NATO – that propped up allies financially to stabilize the economy, and military alliances and aid to guarantee security while avoiding a need to put US troops on the ground. Some have argued that it was Acheson who was “more responsible for the Truman Doctrine than Truman and more responsible for the Marshall Plan than General Marshall.” Indeed, this seems to have been the position of the Republicans who put the blame of the Truman administration’s policies on Acheson’s shoulders. 

Containment was a school of thought that Richard Nixon would call in 1952 “the cowardly college of Communist containment,” of which Acheson was the “Red Dean.” To the opposition, this policy was simply not adequately robust: In 1949, China had emerged from its civil war as a communist regime. In June of 1950, another major blow was dealt to the Truman administration’s strategy when North Korea invaded South Korea. This was the first instance of a communist regime conducting a land invasion and it tested the tenets of the Truman Doctrine. In response, Acheson moved with alacrity, securing U.N. approval for military action. To Truman, the American intervention in Korea was the most difficult decision of his presidency. Acheson made it possible and managed it “superbly.”

The Republicans, who had long felt that Acheson was too soft on communism, also argued that military action in Korea was unconstitutional. And so in December of 1950, at The President’s News Conference, Truman publicly addressed the press, defending his administration’s Cold War policies, and outspokenly defending Acheson. 

Post-Truman: Acheson’s Legacy

Truman’s defense of Acheson and his comparison of Acheson to Seward, then, can be read as Truman communicating that he and Acheson would be vindicated by history, just as Lincoln and Seward were. Indeed, seventeen years after Truman and Acheson left the White House, Nixon became President in 1969, and called on Acheson frequently for foreign policy advice. The policies for which Acheson and Truman had been vilified had become the norm. As the Truman Doctrine continues to be challenged in various iterations, Acheson and Truman’s legacy informs foreign policy today.

References

  1. [1]
    McCullough, David. Truman. Simon and Schuster, 2003
  2. [2]
    Truman, Harry S, and Dean Acheson. Affection and Trust : The Personal Correspondence of Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson, 1953-1971. Lincoln, University Of Nebraska Press, 2013, p.13
  3. [3]
    Ibid
  4. [4]
    Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men. Simon and Schuster, 1986. P.19