Robert Beisner, author of Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War, wrote in his book, “Some people are headlights and some reflectors. Acheson was a headlight…” Indeed, Dean Acheson was an unforgettable character. Beisner’s book looks closely at Truman’s Secretary of State, revealing that Acheson was a leading force in the Cold War, a “headlight.” Robert Beisner taught history at the University of Chicago, Colgate University, and American University, before retiring to write this book. Below he answers some questions for OUP.
OUP: How did you first decide to write this book and why did it take so long?
Robert Beisner: This book grew like Topsy and went through various phases. From the early 1970s to the end of the 1980s, while busy with other matters, I had in mind someday tackling a book on U.S. foreign policy that paralleled Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It and had a roster of chapters in mind. In the early 1990s, I decided to get to work on it. I started with Acheson but within weeks realized I was writing far too much for a chapter and opted to go for a book instead.
That “book” took me a little over a year to write (and would probably have been around 250 pages long). But it was mainly based on published and secondary sources, and I was dissatisfied with it. So I started over and went to the sources—the Truman Library and Yale University Library mainly. I finished most of the research by around 1994 and started writing again in earnest. But I was also teaching several courses a year and running American University’s general education program. If I were ever to finish the book, I had to find more time, so in December 1997 I took what used to be called “early retirement,” leaving teaching and committee meetings behind me. But then the leaders of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) persuaded me to take charge of a massive bibliographical, editorial project, what emerged in 2003 as American Foreign Relations: A Guide to the Literature (2 volumes; ABC-CLIO). This slowed me down on Acheson, which I “finished” writing the same year, only to realize that it was far too long—probably around 1200 pages. Thus, I spent the rest of 2003, all of 2004, and six or seven months in 2005 slashing and rewriting, bringing the whole thing down to a little over 650 pages of text. I also think it’s a far better book for the exercise.
OUP: How does your biography differ from Acheson’s own memoirs?
Beisner: He was a memoirist, and I’m a historian, and never the twain shall meet.
OUP: What mistakes did Acheson make in Korea that affect the current crisis there?
Beisner: The Truman administration, including Acheson, made their share of mistakes in Korea, particularly by not stopping the U.S./UN counterattack at the 38th parallel (this would have been a hard sell, given domestic opinion), but I think far too much water has gone over the bridge over the last half century to trace today’s crisis in any precise way to the doings of 1950-51.
OUP: What was Acheson’s view of nuclear weapons? How did Acheson’s and Truman’s ideas differ on this issue?
Beisner: From the day the Hiroshima bomb was dropped—when Acheson wrote his daughter, “The news of the atomic bomb is the most frightening yet. If we can’t work out some sort of organization of great powers, we shall be gone geese for fair”—Acheson hated nuclear weapons, not just because of their immense and frightening destructiveness. As a policymaker, he saw how they tempted U.S. leaders to substitute them for the conventional forces, Acheson always believed imperative in advancing U.S. interests. Truman, who was not particularly sophisticated about such matters, had no such qualms.
OUP: What was Acheson’s relationship with Stalin? How did it change from partner in WWII to enemy in the Cold War?
Beisner: Acheson had no personal relationship with Stalin, of course, but he regarded him as a thoroughly untrustworthy world leader. This may sound utterly unsurprising until one realizes that, for all the tricks nations play on one another, international diplomacy rests on the assumption that countries and their leaders will exercise at least minimal honesty in their dealings with one another. I show in my book that Acheson was slower than other prominent U.S. officials to abandon hope for decent postwar relations with Stalin’s regime. What caused him to join their ranks was Soviet pressure on Turkey in the summer of 1946.
OUP: Briefly, what new things do we learn about President Truman through the study of Dean Acheson?
Beisner: Truman, of course, was ultimately responsible for all his administration’s achievements (and failures) and can take credit for them, but my study also shows that usually he just approved what Acheson and others suggested he do. Some of the worst moments of the administration came when Truman tried to act independently or, as Acheson put it, began sticking peanuts up his nose.
OUP: How has researching and writing this book changed your view of American diplomacy?
Beisner:To be perfectly honest, not very much, but that should be no surprise considering all the years I have observed American foreign policy in the making and read, taught, and written about the subject.
OUP: What lessons can current and future Secretary of States, like Condoleezza Rice, learn from Acheson?
Beisner: I think it’s extremely difficult for one mature person to learn from another. I am also struck by how many presidents and secretaries of state have historically spent a year or so acting clumsily in the international arena before coming to terms with it before—usually—improving their performance. That is partly because of the partisanship of our politics and nature of our constitutional system, for each new administration wants to take credit for improving on or even repudiating its predecessor. If I were forced to suggest what Secretary Rice should pay special attention to, it would be the Achesonian view that only by accepting restraints on its behavior vis à vis allies can Washington successfully lead its more dependent allies. But I suspect she already knows that.