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Dean Acheson – Architect of the Cold War

Dean Gooderham Acheson served as Secretary of State under President Truman from 1949-1953. Noting his enormous influence, historian Randall Woods described Acheson as “a primary architect” of the Cold War. A lifelong Democrat, he began his career in public service as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. He was appointed Under Secretary of the Treasury by President Roosevelt in 1933, but resigned within the year and returned to his position in a Washington law firm.

In 1941, Acheson entered the State Department as an Assistant Secretary, responsible for much of American economic policy during and after World War II, including the Lend-Lease policy, the IMF, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). He became an Under Secretary of State under President Truman and played a key role during the beginnings of the Cold War. A close advisor to the President, he was the primary author of both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.

Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. In the following years, he helped craft U.S. containment policy, the formation of the NATO alliance, and American intervention in the Korean War. Lucius D. Battle (who later rose to become Assistant Secretary) was all of 30 years old when he served as Special Assistant to Secretary Acheson throughout his term. In an interview with Dayton Mak beginning in July 1991, he described his relationship to the Secretary, his impressions of the Department at the time, and the tension between Acheson and his successor, John Foster Dulles.

He also discussed a notable incident of decision-making during the Korean War, when Acheson signed off on authorization for General MacArthur to cross the Korean border at the 38th parallel and move into North Korean territory. This provoked China to carry out its earlier threat to enter the conflict if the U.S. crossed the 38th parallel. Chinese forces invaded through the Yalu River and, in the first encounter of the war between Chinese and U.S. forces, caused one of the worst American losses in the Korean War.

Although he returned to his private law practice, Acheson later advised Presidents Johnson and Kennedy during the Vietnam War and Cuban Missile Crisis. His son, David C. Acheson, who was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May 2008, discusses his father’s early career path and personality, as well as the disagreement with President Roosevelt that led to his resignation.

Secretary Lawrence S. Eagleburger served as Special Assistant to Acheson while he was acting as an advisor to President Johnson from 1965-1967. In an interview with Leonard J. Saccio beginning in August 1988, Eagleburger explained Acheson’s role in the Johnson administration, particularly when French President Charles de Gaulle chose to leave NATO’s military command in 1966.

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“He was an interesting combination”

David C. Acheson

ACHESON: He was an interesting combination. At Yale…. most people would have called him a playboy, very social, loved parties, had many, many friends and was regarded as a – I think the word used then would have been sport. He was a sport. And his interest in academics was fairly modest and he did fairly modestly in academics….

It kind of surprised Dad’s friends when he went to Harvard Law School, that he was either the first or second in his class at Harvard Law School. He was on the Harvard Law Review as editor; treasurer of the Harvard Law Review, and he attracted the interest of members of the faculty there, in his intellect and his writing skills, which were very, very good. He was heavily influenced there by Professor Felix Frankfurter [later Supreme Court Justice], who was then quite a young professor, but taught him.

Dad was a strong liberal in his early days. He thought about specializing in labor law and representing labor unions when he got out of law school. But, he said that never happened because, on account of his marks and the recommendations that he got from faculty, he was asked to come to Washington and be the law clerk to Justice Brandeis of the Supreme Court….

My father thought Hoover was doing everything wrong and making the Depression worse and that… Hoover’s determination to hold onto a balanced budget was not very opportune – that was not the time. So my father, who was always a Democrat, became a strong Roosevelt supporter….

Roosevelt asked my father to be Under Secretary for the Treasury at a time when the newly appointed Secretary, William Wooden, had just discovered that he was fatally ill. So, my father was the Secretary of the Treasury, for all practical purposes, for the first year and a quarter of the Roosevelt administration….

They came to disagreement on something Roosevelt wanted to do toward the end of Dad’s first year in the Treasury. And, Roosevelt asked my father to give him an opinion that it would be lawful for the President to use the funds of the RFC (Reconstruction Finance Corporation) to buy gold at an enhanced price. And the theory that the President had been advised on, but not by my father, was that doing that would enhance the prices of commodities generally and that would lead to prosperity and greater employment.

My father said, “Mr. President, I have to tell you that theory is nonsense. Whoever advised you to that effect really was totally wrong; it would not have that effect at all.” But he said, “If you wish to do it, I could not stand in the way. The trouble is that Congress has explicitly made it unlawful for you to do what you want to do and this is what the statute says.”

And the President said, “Well, isn’t there a little wiggle in that statute?” My father said, “No, I don’t think so and the intent of Congress was to prevent it, certainly.”

And he said, “As long as you own the Congress, Mr. President, why don’t you go to Congress and get the law changed?” And the President said, “Well, I’m going to see if I can’t do it by executive authority.”

And Dad said, “Well, in that case, I think you are entitled to have a new Under Secretary of the Treasury.” And he resigned….

He was pretty strict about fundamental things like telling the truth and trying to be prudent about personal finances, and stuff like that. But he was very personable, very witty, and he liked fun and he’d take us ice-skating. He took me skeet shooting, took me quail shooting, and did a lot of things that… he enjoyed. He liked people, liked having fun. He loved humor; he had a keen wit and loved using it and it made him very popular with his friends. Socially, he was a very attractive, popular, personable guy and my mother, although she was a very beautiful woman, was quite shy and rather withdrawn. So Dad was really sort of the point person in their social interaction with other people.

“I was in awe of Acheson”

Special Assistant Lucius Battle

BATTLE: That was the opening of a whole new world to me, working for Acheson. (Battle pictured at left.) He was a very engaging man, so bright, so difficult at times, but it was an experience. Working for him was a real experience. During the first days I was with him, I was a little scared. I was afraid I would do the wrong thing. But I was greatly impressed. He gave a speech in New York and asked me to go with him. He said he would be working on the speech and asked me to drop by that evening. He had something else to do before then.

He said, “I have started to work on this speech for New York, but I had a strange experience. I used a quotation from the Bible–the New Testament–and then I thought I’d better double check the source. I did that and couldn’t find it. Then I remembered that Lincoln had used that verse in one of his speeches. I found the quotation in the Lincoln speech and found out that he had misquoted the New Testament. I had been remembering all these years what Lincoln had said and not what was in the Bible.” I was deeply impressed with his scholarship; I was knocked out by it.

We went to New York. It was a party honoring General [George C.] Marshall, perhaps at the Freedom House. It was probably in the second week of March. That was the first time I had traveled with him. From then, we had one of the most marvelous relationships imaginable. We became very, very friendly. We laughed a lot. He was often difficult, but he gave me total trust and delegation. He told me to deal with anything that he reached his office with which I felt comfortable.

What he didn’t know is that I feel comfortable with almost everything, except big issues. I never bothered him with small issues and never had any trouble. I used to sign his name on lots of papers. On the back, I would put a code on the file copies of the papers that could be used subsequently to know what I had handled. I knew from that code that Dean Acheson had never seen the original paper, but that I had signed off for him. I would never have done it on any major policy issues….

Acheson had just returned to government. He was being re-briefed after an absence of a year or so. So we were reviewing everything. There meetings on all sorts of subjects–Europe, Far East, etc. I sat in on all those meetings. I traveled with him wherever he went. If he had appointments in London or Paris or wherever, he would always take me with him. There was never any question about my going. Sometimes the U.S. ambassador in the country would also go, but Acheson wanted me at these meetings.

I kept a record of all the meetings. I did the reporting telegrams, which I never showed him. I wrote the record of the meeting and sent it. As I look back on it, it was crazy. But that is what I did. Acheson never objected. I would write little notes on papers saying that I thought it was a good idea or that I didn’t think it was a good idea, that everyone thought he should the following. He then would ask me why I thought it was not a good idea; I never hesitated in defending my position.

As much as I was in awe of Acheson, I thought that he was sometimes unreasonable and was about to do something terrible. He would tell people that he had gotten mad at some of the correspondence he had gotten and had dictated scathing replies, but that I would tear them up. Which was quite true. When he dictated–which he didn’t do very often– the dictation would always come back to me before it went to the Secretary for signature. Sometimes, I would take the letter back to him and tell him that it was not wise to send it. It is amazing that he would accept my judgment, most of the time.

He would get indignant with me from time to time, but in the main, we got along beautifully. It was a great three and half years, which I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

“There was one big issue which I lost on”

Looking back on it, the Department was quite interesting in general. A lot of things happened. In 1948 elections, no one expected Harry Truman to be re-elected. No one contributed a penny to him. Therefore he had an absolutely free hand. He could do anything he wanted, make any appointments he wanted. He had no obligations; he had no long list of contributors.

So Dean Acheson, having known the Department and the Foreign Service–he knew the people. He could appoint Foreign Service people to key posts and needed not to look to the outside. He appointed from within the Service wherever he possibly could. [Deputy Under Secretaries] Jack Puerifoy and Carl Humelsine did most of the appointments of ambassadors and assistant secretaries. From time to time, I would get involved if the position to be filled was to be near the Secretary. Acheson would ask me what I thought of the candidate and I would tell him. There were times when this became touchy, but he wanted my views on a lot of things. I would sometimes fight for one point of view or another; sometimes not. Invariably he would say that what I had said made sense. That is not why I thought Acheson was wonderful.

There was one big issue which I lost on, much to my regret. I think it is also mentioned in his book. It took place after the Inchon landing in Korea. The Joint Chiefs and everybody else had had great misgivings about the landing. But no one wanted to tell [General Douglas] MacArthur he couldn’t do it. It was a landing weakly supplied and weakly backed up. All the military force we had in the world was committed to Korea. Acheson was worried about the Inchon landing, but no one wanted to interject negativism in conversations with MacArthur. The military treated him like a big god.

The landing was brilliant and after that no one wanted to control MacArthur. The big issue then became why the President and the Secretary of State were preventing MacArthur from crossing the 38th parallel. MacArthur had gotten to the parallel and paused. I was in New York with Acheson at a U.N. meeting. Dean Rusk, then Assistant Secretary for the Far East, brought the new instruction to MacArthur. There were no teletypes at that time, no faxes, no computers. The typing load was unbelievable. But messages to New York could be hand carried as quickly as by any other communications means. I shared a suite with Mr. and Mrs. Acheson. When she was with him, we did that everywhere we went. The new instructions came after we had been in New York for about two and half weeks.

So Rusk came to the New York office and I was sitting outside Acheson’s office. Rusk handed me the telegram which I read. In effect, the instructions left the decision to cross the 38th parallel up to MacArthur. The telegram said that the parallel had no sanctity; we had never accepted it as demarcation line. It did not hold MacArthur back.

When Acheson was free–he had someone in the office with him–I took the telegram in. I handed it to him and told him that the instructions gave General MacArthur much too much latitude. The decision on how far north he should go was being left up to him. I told him that by putting no restraints on MacArthur, we were committing a great mistake. He got absolutely livid. He was already upset with me because for three weeks I had tried to make him do something that he didn’t want to do.

Acheson looked at me and said, “How old are you, Luke?” I told him that I was thirty.

He said, “At age thirty you are willing to take on the Joint Chiefs? This is their judgment.” That telegram was interpreted by MacArthur as authorization to move north to the Yalu River, with all the attending horrors that followed. If he had done what we eventually did–that is, dig in and hold at the 38th parallel–it would have not given the Chinese an excuse to enter the conflict. I regret that I did not fight harder….

Scotch and Bourbon in the Afternoons

The telegram was sent; MacArthur moved north and by the end of the year we were in desperate straits. The whole enterprise was falling apart. But this was an illustration of interjecting myself. I did not want to be a “house plant”–the current description for a non-entity. I held my own pretty well. I had to give in sometimes, but Acheson was so bright, so intelligent and so decent to work for, that it was a pleasure.

I loved his jokes. We used to settle down in the late afternoons–in those days, we didn’t work as long as they do today. We often had a drink; we kept scotch and bourbon in the safe. We would pour ourselves a drink and sit down to talk. Sometimes, he would invite someone else to join us. We had a drink and then he would go home…. He would take me when he went to see Churchill or [French Foreign Minister] Schuman. I didn’t necessarily stay with them the whole time. I could tell when I was not welcomed. He usually preferred to have me there with him because he wanted to make sure that matters were followed up on. He also wanted witnesses and a record of conversations so that he could deal effectively with any subsequent arguments. That was my role essentially. For a young man my age, it was a heady experience….

There were some interesting aspects of this period:  the McCarthy period –very difficult. One would not have expected that an attack from the outside would induce people to turn around and run. And it did not happen except in one case. I never suspected that any of the assistant secretaries would do anything improper. We had George Perkins, a Republican, who came in as Assistant Secretary for European Affairs. He couldn’t have been better. Everybody who worked there closed ranks. It was good for the Department and the people in it.

A Tense Relationship with John Foster Dulles

[John Foster] Dulles came to work, which was interesting in itself. Acheson had told me that it was not necessary for Dulles to be involved in everything. He should only see selected telegrams. I told the Secretary that it wouldn’t work. He had been brought in as a general advisor. He had to see the same traffic that the senior staff saw. Acheson didn’t like that response, but we proceeded on that basis….

He and Acheson never liked each other. I was frequently the go-between. In the beginning, Dulles resented it. He would ask for an appointment with the Secretary and I would escort him to the door to let him in. I didn’t go in with him. Obviously, Dulles resented me. He thought I was a young squirt and didn’t want to have anything to do with me. So he had a couple of private meetings with the Secretary. Whatever he asked for didn’t happen. They were minor requests, but nothing happened.

Finally, Dulles came to me and said that the Secretary had told him that “a, b, and c” would happen, but that nothing had taken place. So I told him that I would see what I could do. So I got his requests honored, after asking the Secretary if it was all right. After that, Dulles became aware of the fact that he needed me to be in on his meetings with the Secretary. When he would have an appointment with Acheson, he would pass my office, which was right outside the Secretary’s, and say, “Luke, come on in.” And I would say, “All right, Mr. Dulles, if you wish.” So I did. As time went on, the relationship between the two became dicey and tricky.

The big issue of course became the Korean War in 1950. Dulles was in Japan working on the Peace Treaty when the war broke out. He immediately returned to Washington. I went to see him in his office.

Eleanor Dulles, his sister, was in there with him. Dulles asked me to come in to his office. He was on the phone with Bob Taft, telling him how much he approved what the U.S. government had done in Korea. He thought that we had made the United Nations a living, breathing organization and he approved heartily of the Truman-Acheson decision…. He held that line for the first few weeks and then starting in the first week of December 1950 he talked to a lot of reporters.

Several of them called me — Mark Childs and others — to tell me that Dulles was now opposing the war and that he was saying that he never would have handled the crisis in that way. If he had been in charge, if he had anything at all, he would have used air power alone. I was furious. The story was confirmed by at least two press people.

“One of the greats of American foreign policy in the 20th century”

Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger

EAGLEBURGER: President Johnson asked Dean Acheson to come back into the Department to be special advisor to him, that is to the President, at the time that [President] de Gaulle decided to pull France out of the integrated command structure of NATO.  I ended up being Acheson’s assistant during that period. (Eagleburger pictured at left.)

First of all, I developed tremendous respect and affection for someone I think is one of the greats of American foreign policy in the 20th century, Acheson was, even in those years, and that was when he was in his early 70s and had long since left the government, a superb human being and clearly substantially more capable of coherent thought than most of those around him in the Johnson administration.

He took a very tough view of how the U.S. ought to react to the de Gaulle move, and recommended that the administration ought to take sanctions against France:  we should, he argued, state that we were unprepared to carry out our defense commitment under the NATO treaty since France had removed itself from the military structure. None of these recommendations were accepted by the President, by the way, and indeed, [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk didn’t agree with most of Acheson’s recommendations. [Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara, to my recollection, didn’t either, and it was a very frustrating time for Acheson.

While it is true that most of his recommendations were not accepted, it was also interesting to watch, because it was only because Acheson was there pushing and, in effect, on occasion proposing some pretty stringent reactions that the administration was forced to think through how, in fact, it would deal with the crisis. So Acheson, though not the man who developed the policy, forced the administration to take a hard look at some real questions.

Part of the thing about the Acheson period that interested me most was watching Acheson deal with the President of the United States. He had supported Lyndon Johnson for President when Kennedy got the nomination, largely because, as he himself told me, he had such distrust for John Kennedy and felt he was less than up to the task. In fact, he one time described John Kennedy as reminding him of “an amateur boomerang-thrower practicing his art in a crowded room.” So he was close to Johnson. But with all of that, the period when he came back into the government was difficult for him, and particularly difficult because he and Johnson did not get along well….

I remember one time there was a discussion with Johnson, Rusk, [Under Secretary of State George] Ball, and McNamara in the White House. I had told Acheson I would wait for him outside at the southwest Executive Avenue entrance and he could brief me on what had gone on, and we could figure out what we were going to do next.

He was driving his own car, and he pulled out, and I got in the car, and he was crying. Tears were running down his cheeks. I said, “Mr. Secretary, what in the world is wrong?”

He said, “Larry, I hate to tell you, but I have just told off the President of the United States.” I learned later from George Ball, I think it was, that, in fact, Acheson had gone up one side and down the other of Lyndon Johnson. They’d had a real battle. But what impressed me, and what I have seen a lot less of in later generations in Washington, is the degree to which Acheson venerated the office of the President.

He was crying because he had had a battle with the President and had shown less respect for the President than he thought, in the aftermath, he should have shown.