Saturday, June 21, 2008

McCain calls Dean Acheson "a great statesman"

In McCain's Ottawa speech yesterday he saluted Truman's Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Apparently both of Acheson's parents were Canadian.

In March of last year I was staying in an old Jerusalem hotel with a Mandate feel and a reading room with small library upstairs. I came across Acheson's 1969 Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department and ended up deciding against a planned visit to Jordan in order to remain in Israel and finish the book.

The transformation in US foreign policy from FDR's wartime support for Stalin (which ranged from refusing to support Churchill's proposal to assist the Warsaw Uprising since it would defy "Uncle Joe", to presiding over State and Treasury Departments shot through with Communist spies, to suppressing a report that would have correctly blamed Stalin for the Katyn Massacre) to a proxy war against Stalin on the Korean pennisula is one of the remarkable phenomena of 20th century history, especially in light of the popularity of isolationism in the US as late as 1940.

In many respects, support for capitalism as an economic system collapsed in the wake of the Great Depression, with central and eastern Europe moving to either fascism or communism the 1930s, and western Europe / North America moving to a mixed economy. The Red Scare of the post-War period would never have had the traction it did if communism in American hadn't been a real deal in the 1940s. The wartime culture reflected a common, if not the prevailing, sentiment, with Hollywood reeling off unabashed pro-Soviet propaganda productions like Mission to Moscow, Song of Russia, and The North Star.

Acheson's book sheds some light upon that transformation, written as it is by someone who was a lifelong Democrat (in 1950 House Republicans resolved unanimously that he be removed from office... this is where I remind you of McCain's "great statesman" tribute) and a (mistaken) defender of Alger Hiss. Acheson was prepared to trust and work with his country's wartime ally in Moscow but was unable to do so. Who he could work with was his country's wartime enemy. When it came to actual negotiating, Acheson became an admirer of West Germany's first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, while he was occasionally frustrated with the French and ultimately of the view that Stalin's people were implacably hostile and obstructionist.

If I had any criticism of Acheson's memoirs, it would be that he wasn't self-critical enough. When US soldiers were dying in Korea in 1950, shouldn't that have raised some questions about how Stalin seized North Korea in the first place and why that wasn't prevented? FDR's veep Henry Wallace published Where I Was Wrong (about the Soviets) in 1952, but from Acheson I got the impression he didn't believe that he, or the adminstrations he worked for, were ever seriously wrong.

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