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DEVOTION TO THE CHIEF: June '97 American History Feature

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1997 
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DEVOTION TO THE CHIEF
DEVOTION TO THE CHIEF

President Harry S. Truman relied heavily on Dean Acheson for his most significant foreign policy achievements.

by Robert L. Beisner

When he assumed the office of president of the United States in April 1945, Harry S. Truman possessed limited knowledge of international affairs. During his almost eight years in office, therefore, he relied heavily on Dean Acheson, an imposing figure who was at the president's side for his most significant foreign policy achievements–notably, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization–and his most difficult problems, including the Korean War.

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Truman, the accidental and undervalued president, and Acheson, first as America's most influential undersecretary of state from 1945-47 and then as secretary of state from 1949-53, constituted one of the oddest matches in American history. No other president and secretary of state team seemed so poorly matched in background and personality–the former, a bourbon-drinking mid-Westerner with a homespun disposition, and the latter, a mustachioed Connecticut lawyer who preferred perfect martinis–yet, no such team ever worked better together.

The close association enjoyed by Truman and Acheson started in the wake of the 1946 congressional elections, when the Democratic Party, tarred by the brush of the unpopular president, was driven from the majority to the minority side of Congress for the first time since 1929. Crestfallen over these results, Truman, who had cast his vote in Missouri, boarded the train in Independence with wife Bess and daughter Margaret for the long trip back to the capital. "It had for years been a Cabinet custom," Acheson later wrote, "to meet President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt's private car on his return from happier elections and escort him to the White House. It never occurred to me that after defeat the President would be left to creep unnoticed back to the capital. So I met his train. To my surprise and horror, I was alone on the platform where his car was brought in, except for the station master and a reporter or two. What the President expected, I do not know."

Truman did not ignore such a manifest display of fidelity, and soon, with Secretary of State James Byrnes–and later, George C. Marshall–constantly traveling to international conferences, Undersecretary Acheson became an indispensable adviser, keeping the president informed and weaning him from his prejudices against the State Department.

Shortly before Acheson left the department in 1947, Truman wrote to him: "With you and our incomparable Secretary, the General [Marshall], over there I don't have a worry in the world." When Acheson returned to the administration as secretary of state, he brought back with him his formula for sticking close to the president. He anticipated Truman's needs and offered advice when he thought it welcome. He ensured that Truman "had an opportunity to influence policy before it congealed into flat alternatives" and sought to make certain that the two of them marched to the same cadence and to the same music. He "never did anything without touching base with Truman," reported Charles Bohlen, a State Department official. His unstinting public dedication to an uncertain, often unpopular president was reciprocated with deep gratitude and loyalty.

Acheson, who died in 1971, would not have applauded Ronald Reagan's don't-worry-about-the-details brand of presidential leadership. The nation's chief executive should, he believed, have considerable mastery of what his men–they were virtually all men then–were doing. Combining supreme self-confidence with a rapid eight-cylinder intellect, Acheson also thought that the president should support his secretary of state's advice after receiving it, which Truman usually–but not always–did. Although Acheson knew that Truman had an independent mind, he often seemed a bit irritated when the president exercised it.

And, Acheson was always rather shocked by Truman's criticisms of the State Department. Commenting on a draft of Truman's memoirs in 1955, Acheson complained about his former boss's use of "the cliché, 'striped pants boys in the State Department.' I should like to see you change this to 'people in the State Department,'" he wrote, "not merely because the phrase is tiresome, but because it gives quite a wrong impression of the tremendous support which you gave to the career service and for which they will be forever grateful."

During Truman's terms of office, Acheson worried about what might happen when the president attempted to act the statesman on his own. When Truman got together with Britain's Clement Attlee or Winston Churchill or other foreign leaders, Acheson recalled in 1955, there was "a great tendency . . . to have these fellows go off by themselves; this is just sheer murder and never ought to occur to a dog. It is a terrible thing to have happen, because you have no idea of what is said, and the President can tell you what he thinks was said; the other fellow is quite as sure that something different was said, and there is no way of resolving this thing." In fact, Acheson believed that all state visits with foreign leaders were probably a bad idea, in part because no one could predict how Harry S. Truman of Independence, Missouri, might act.

Sometimes Truman simply opposed Acheson's wishes; it happened at one time or another over issues involving Germany, China, Spain, the conduct of the Korean War, Israel, Iran, and Guatemala. The president usually gave in to the secretary of state eventually, but his initial resistance would sometimes provoke Acheson's notorious powers of condescension.

Despite these lapses, a tone of mutual confidence dominated their relationship. Acheson never ceased to be impressed that Truman "had no trace of imperiousness about him" and never allowed his ego to come "between him and his job." "One could not ask for a commander with more directness, understanding and courage," he wrote to his daughter in 1950.

Acheson, however, seemed most impressed by Truman's "deeply loving and tender nature." In a 1969 television interview, he related how "During one period, . . . my younger daughter was very ill indeed and had a most serious operation, and it was not clear whether she would pull through. The President telephoned the hospital, where my wife was, got a report on my daughter's condition and telephoned me, when I was abroad, every day as to how that girl was. Well, this is the kind of person that one can adore. You have an affection for that man that nothing can touch."

Truman biographer David McCullough has remarked that "Harry Truman never had such a friend before." They "really were buddies," remembered State Department official John Hickerson. Treasury Secretary John W. Snyder, another Missourian, thought that Acheson's relationship with the president was on a different plane from those who shared poker and bourbon with Truman. It was less social. Nonetheless, Admiral Robert L. Dennison, a White House naval aide, stated that the Truman and Acheson "families were the closest of friends, and background be damned."

For years, writers and mutual acquaintances tried to identify the common elements making such a close relationship possible. Both men hailed from "small towns"–Independence, Missouri, and Middletown, Connecticut–and philosophically both were left of center, though "lodged there in a conservative way." Each experienced his "first youthful brush with the 'real world' working with a railroad crew"; both enjoyed reading history and biography and "adored" Mark Twain. If Acheson was "a fashion plate," Truman was too in his way, with his double-breasted suits and loud Key West shirts. Both men took early morning walks, "enjoyed a convivial drink [and] a good story," and adored their daughters.

Truman and Acheson were both devoted to the gospel of hard work. Sharing a passion for orderly methods, they despised the chaos resulting from Roosevelt's cavalier approach to administration. They liked having all important matters put on paper and emphatically preferred making, not avoiding, firm, clear decisions.

More than friendship and mutual confidence, however, account for Truman's near-total reliance on Acheson for foreign policy leadership. Some of his dependence reflected Truman's uncertainty about his command of foreign affairs, especially early in his presidency. But it also stemmed from his straightforward view of the primacy of the State Department within the president's cabinet and of the responsibility of all cabinet members to command in the areas covered by their departments.

Truman, unlike so many of his successors, was not tempted to create a competitive foreign affairs center in the White House. He understood the kinds of problems that competitive bureaucratic initiatives could create and wanted nothing like that in his administration; rather, he wanted unity on large issues. Thus, Truman's personal trust of Acheson, his view of the administrative order within the executive branch, and his sense of what made a government work well made it almost inevitable that the secretary of state would dominate the area of foreign policy in this administration.

Truman and Acheson crafted their teamwork with exceptional skill. They had a deft understanding of each other's roles. "I never thought I was the President, and he never thought he was the Secretary," recalled Acheson, who nonetheless once told Truman that the National Security Council was a place where the president "should listen to everybody who has anything to say on foreign affairs" but that "when it comes to final advice, it must come from your Secretary of State."

The relationship between the president and his secretary of state had to be quite frank, "sometimes to the point of being blunt," Acheson said. "And you just have to be deferential. He is the President of the United States, and you don't say rude things to him–you say blunt things to him. Sometimes he doesn't like it. That's natural, but he comes back, and you argue the thing out. But that's your duty. You don't tell him only what he wants to hear. That would be bad for him and for everyone else."

Because the two men had such a good understanding of their respective roles, it could almost always be assumed that if Acheson spoke about an issue to other government officials, and certainly if he spoke about it in public, he and the president had already discussed it and there was no point in appealing to Truman for a reversal. In 1951, the president told a visiting statesman that he "could speak with Mr. Acheson just as though he were speaking to the President himself."

Both men were excellent at keeping secrets. They also relished teaming up on public statements, coordinating what they would say in their weekly press conferences. Since Acheson's usually preceded Truman's by a day, they concocted deliberate one-two punches to emphasize government unity and resolve. When the administration announced its decision to build the hydrogen bomb in February 1950, reporters first asked Acheson about it. At a presidential press conference the following day, Truman, in response to similar queries, declared that Acheson "spoke for the State Department, which is supposed to represent my . . . foreign policy."

Whenever Acheson met the press, he would inform the president about what he had said and send him a transcript. "And over and over again," he recalled, Truman "would say, 'The Secretary of State, after consultation with me, has stated our position' and that is all there is to it." This approach foiled reporters' attempts "to put a screwdriver in between the President and me." The Truman-Acheson teamwork "smothered the fire."

Almost every time Acheson came under public attack–such as in the aftermath of the "fall" of China to the communists in 1949 or following his public refusal to disavow Alger Hiss, a former State Department officer accused of spying for the Russians, who was convicted of perjury in 1950–Truman went out of his way to defend him. In just one of many instances, the president declared in a March 1950 briefing: "I think I made myself perfectly clear that I think Dean Acheson is–and will go down in history as one of the great Secretaries of State."

In a show of remarkable constancy–considering how often presidents distance themselves from a subordinate in trouble–Truman instead strengthened his embrace of Acheson. Nearly three years into Acheson's term as secretary of state, well after Senator Joseph McCarthy had targeted him and after the troubles of the Korean War, journalist James Reston described Acheson as "closer than ever" to Truman and "likely to have more authority over foreign affairs than ever before."

Reston's colleague at The New York Times, Cabell Phillips, echoed that assessment. "The personal bond between [Acheson] and the President has grown stronger with each passing month," he wrote. "Mr. Acheson has carefully avoided the mistake of some of his predecessors of by-passing the White House on foreign policy matters. The President has reciprocated this deference by giving him as much latitude as any Secretary of State has ever enjoyed. They are rarely at odds on any important international question. But above everything else, Mr. Truman, a deeply loyal man himself, is grateful for the unflinching loyalty of Mr. Acheson, who has stood his ground in the face of the massive personal abuse to which he has been subjected in the last two years."

The few disagreements that arose between the two men were usually about the politics of foreign policy. When they differed, the secretary of state would argue his case, thinking of it not as Acheson arguing with Truman, but as the secretary of state doing his duty toward the presidency.

Never one to take his close connection with the president for granted, Acheson worked at it, staying in constant touch. Twice a week, he and Truman held scheduled meetings, getting together more often when necessary. In addition, they talked on the telephone almost daily; Acheson felt free to call direct on Truman's line whenever he wanted.

When abroad, Acheson used an exacting system to maintain almost constant communication with Truman. In order to be able to report on what was transpiring, members of the secretary's entourage attended meetings or were immediately briefed by Acheson on private ones. "A detailed cable went off every day to the Department with a shorter summary for the President's use if his time was short or to show senators and others," the secretary remembered. "He also received personal–'for his eyes only'–estimates of the situation, dictated by me, containing appraisals of people, of obstacles ahead and methods of avoiding them, and of opportunities for initiatives, as well as requests for suggestions if any occurred to him. He often said that these made him feel present at the scene and participating."

Acheson had great respect for the presidency in the abstract, but he was devoted to Harry S. Truman personally. "A great chief," he would sigh after talking to him on the phone, a president who made decisions that were "as straight as fence posts." He profoundly admired Truman's capacity "to understand complex questions and to decide," one of the "rarest qualities possessed by man." Truman did not "care a hoot what Congress, [Arthur M.] Schlesinger [Jr.] or any other historian would say. The question he would ask was: 'Is this the right thing to do?' Convinced that it was, he made the decision, however unpopular it may have seemed." When Admiral Dennison asked him in the sixties why he had not written a book on Truman, Acheson answered: "Well, I have such a high regard for him, and I am so fond of him, that I feel I could not possibly be objective."

He was never reluctant to express that high regard directly to his president. One of his most affecting letters went to Truman on April 12, 1951, the six-year anniversary of President Roosevelt's death and, consequently, Truman's assumption of the presidency. Less than 48 hours earlier, Truman had fired General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, provoking nationwide calls for his impeachment. Beginning with "Dear Mr. President," as Acheson did all his letters to Truman (often "Dear Boss" after January 1953), he continued, "Six years ago today the world descended on your shoulders. Six years ago tomorrow I went to work for you in a meeting in the Cabinet room. You were facing the first of more trials than any President has ever faced—except possibly Lincoln. Others have faced war with its terrible choices. But you have faced, and met, these without the unity that war brings–in fact, with almost the reverse, the apathy which the end of war brings. To me that meeting began the affection for a man and devotion to a chief which has been, and is, my life. The times ahead will be rough. You are sailing the ship and I am signed on. We have always spoken the truth to one another and always shall. As this seventh year begins I send you my loyalty and profound respect." *


Robert L. Beisner, Ph.D., a native of Nebraska, is Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C. A prize-winning historian, he is currently writing a book on Dean Acheson and the Cold War.

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