On the day that Harry S. Truman left the presidency in January 1953, he and senior members of his administration enjoyed a long, bittersweet luncheon at the Georgetown house of his secretary of state, Dean Acheson. Truman then took the train back to Independence, Mo., wrote his memoirs, established a presidential library and spoke out sharply on the politics of the Ike Age. Acheson stayed in Washington, however, pursued a lucrative career as an attorney, published his own recollections and thrived as an elder statesman. Yet of all the associates who had gathered that January day, he remained closest to Truman.
Surface appearances would have predicted him to be among the most distant. Truman was the son of a failed Missouri farmer and livestock trader, Acheson the offspring of a prominent Episcopal cleric. Truman’s formal education had begun and ended with the Independence public schools; Acheson attended Groton, Yale and Harvard Law. Truman was a marginal middle-class striver who failed in one business venture after another before turning to politics. Acheson moved from Harvard to a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, joined a leading Washington law firm and made his way into government through the good offices of Harvard professor and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Truman enjoyed friendships with bourbon-drinking pols; Acheson, a martini man, hobnobbed with scholars and intellectuals.
Yet each panders after the other’s good opinion in this extensive correspondence. The letters reveal that both men, for all their differences in experience, shared common values and possessed similar temperaments. Both were ideological liberal Democrats, suspicious of big business and devoted to civil liberties. Both were Cold Warriors, convinced that their great achievement was the North Atlantic alliance and the postwar structure of containment that had blocked Soviet expansion into Western Europe. While detesting demagogic anti-communism of the McCarthyite variety, they had no patience with the squishy negotiate-without-conditions faction of their own Democratic Party. (Acheson to his dying day believed that the proper response to Soviet missiles in Cuba would have been to unleash Gen. Curtis LeMay’s bombers.)
After office, Acheson and Truman criticized both parties.
Both also put great stock in personal loyalty and practiced it to the point of impetuosity. Acheson needlessly did grave damage to himself and his policies by ostentatiously declaring, after the conviction of former State Department official (and covert Soviet agent) Alger Hiss for perjury in early 1950: “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss.” He offered his resignation to the president, who promptly declined it.
Truman recalled that he had been harshly criticized during his short tenure as vice president when he had commandeered an Air Force bomber to attend the funeral of “a friendless old man just out of the penitentiary”—his unsavory political patron, “Boss Tom” Pendergast of Kansas City. Truman’s enemies never let him forget the alleged misdemeanor; he remained proud of it. Acheson, never persuaded of Hiss’s guilt, was equally adamant.
Both shared the belief that to govern was to make firm decisions after due deliberation and to act. Neither would have been impressed by today’s oft-bruited concept that nations can advance their interests through the deployment of “soft power.” When Truman was informed by Acheson of the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, he recalled his immediate reaction as: “Dean, we’ve got to stop the sons of bitches no matter what.” (Neither he nor Acheson ever fully confronted the probability that the attack was prompted by Acheson’s public exclusion of South Korea from America’s Asian “defense perimeter” six months earlier and facilitated by Truman’s skimping on military spending.)
Truman often told Acheson he was the greatest secretary of state in U.S. history; Acheson dedicated his imposing memoir, “Present at the Creation” (1969), to Truman, “the captain with the mighty heart.” Their mutual regard permeates these exchanges, surviving even Truman’s request for a critical reading of the final draft of his memoirs.
Acheson was a thorough and firm editor, concerned with both substance and the proper use of the English language. He frequently began his comments with such words as “Here, Mr. President, I shall try your patience and good nature.” At one point he declares: “The reader feels stuck on the fly paper for thirty pages.” Elsewhere he chides Truman for leaving “the impression of a two-gun man in the White House shooting with both hands in all directions at the same time.” Truman responded almost as if he were a dutiful doctoral student thanking a mentor for his “generosity.” Like many a doctoral student, however, he did not make every change suggested. Acheson would not ask Truman to critique his memoir.
Truman and Acheson left office distinctly out of favor with the public but confident in their policies. Inevitably they comment disparagingly on their successors, both Republican and Democratic. Eisenhower and Dulles can do no right. Acheson despairs of Adlai Stevenson—”this paunchy quipster is no Marcus Aurelius.” Truman calls John F. Kennedy immature; Acheson sees him as an “Indian snake charmer.” Dean Rusk is unable to give the State Department a sense of direction. Even Lyndon Johnson, whom both had admired, disappoints. “He could be so much better than he is,” Acheson tells Truman. “He creates distrust by being too smart. He is never quite candid. He is both mean and generous, but the meanness too often predominates.”
The critiques had merit, but the constant emphasis on the negative leaves an impression of petulance. Perhaps this can be forgiven, coming as it did from two men who, whatever their own mistakes and weaknesses, created a world order that gave breathing room to the forces of liberalism and democracy. There were giants in those days.
Mr. Hamby, a distinguished professor emeritus of history at Ohio University, is the author of “For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.”
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