ACHESON: THE SECRETARY OF STATE WHO CREATED THE AMERICAN WORLD, by James Chace, Simon & Schuster, 512 pages, $30.
Drawing upon revealing primary sources, James Chace has written a scholarly but engaging comprehensive biography of the man who, as secretary of state from 1949 to 1953 during the Truman presidency, forged the postwar international order.
The author credits Acheson as “a prime architect of the Marshall Plan” to restore Western Europe’s economy. Acheson also played a major role in creating NATO, crafting the Truman Doctrine to thwart Soviet expansion, and forging the international financial structure that helped determine America’s global leadership.
Acheson supported President Truman’s decision to enter the Korean War in 1950, urged him to commit the unpopular act of firing General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, and after the Chinese intervention in Korea in late 1950, withstood the assault of Republicans in Congress who called for his removal from office for having “lost” China to the Communists in 1949. He was drawn further into a storm of political controversy when he refused to denounce Alger Hiss, a former State Department official accused of spying for the Soviets, who was convicted of perjury in 1950.
Although definitely a political biography, Chace’s book also offers details on Acheson’s personal and family life, including his elitist eastern education, his relationship with his parents, and his passion for cabinetmaking and gardening.
In studying Acheson’s career, Chace offers penetrating insight into the problems the United States faced in the postwar world and the motivations behind certain key decisions. Chase’s claim that Acheson was “the most important figure in American foreign policy since John Quincy Adams” is certainly open to debate. Nonetheless, the author has written the definitive biography of a great and bold statesman whose policies of Soviet containment played a substantial role in helping the United States win the Cold War.
Richard H. Peterson is professor emeritus of history at San Diego State University and the author of several books on American history.