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Richard Solomon, Ping-Pong Diplomat to China

China scholar Richard Solomon, who was an essential component of the “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the thaw in relations between the United States and China, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After getting a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966, Solomon taught political science at the University of Michigan. He left in 1971 to join the staff of the National Security Council, where he was responsible for Asian Affairs and worked with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on the normalization of relations with China. Solomon joined the Rand Corporation in 1976. Ten years later Secretary of State George Shultz recruited him to the State Department to lead the policy planning staff.

President George H.W. Bush nominated Solomon to be the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1989. In that role, Solomon helped to negotiate the 1991 Paris Agreement which helped end a long-running conflict in Cambodia. Solomon facilitated nuclear non-proliferation discussions between South Korea and North Korea and served in 1992-1993 as ambassador to the Philippines. Read more

The U.S. Incursion into Cambodia

When President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger vowed to find a way to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam quickly and honorably without appearing to cave in to communist pressure. The U.S. launched a secret air campaign, thirteen major military operations, against North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. Cambodia’s neutrality and military weakness had made its territory a safe zone where North Vietnamese troops established bases for operations over the border.

President Richard Nixon gave formal authorization to commit U.S. ground  troops, fighting alongside South Vietnamese units, against North Vietnamese troop sanctuaries in Cambodia on April 28,1970. The incursion was possible because of a change in the Cambodian government in which Prince Norodom Sihanouk was replaced by pro-U.S. General Lon Nol. News of the military action in Cambodia ignited massive antiwar demonstrations in the U.S., in part because the determination to invade was made secretly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, which had closed in 1964, was in the process of reopening. The fact that only a small circle of people in Washington knew what the Nixon administration was planning to do in Cambodia, including the April 1970 incursion, complicated the work of U.S. diplomats there. Read more

Negotiating the Mexican-American Border: the Case of Chamizal

Defining the border between Mexico and the United States has not always been in the hands of politicians; at one point, a shift in the Rio Grande River created a new boundary and generated a diplomatic dispute. In February 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and designated the Rio Grande the boundary line between the two nations. However, due to flooding and the changing flow of the river, over time, the banks of Rio Grande shifted. The alteration was so significant that a 600 acre piece of land between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Jaurez, Chihuahua, known as the Chamizal, went from being in Mexican territory to north of the river in American territory.

Americans began to settle in the Chamizal and incorporated the land into the city of El Paso. In 1895, the Mexican government, which claimed the land as part of Mexico, elevated the dispute to the International Boundary Commission (IBC), a body of U.S. and Mexican officials. Four years later, the IBC created a cement track to redirect the Rio Grande and avoid future floods, a project jointly funded by the U.S. and Mexico. This man-made alteration moved yet another piece of land, Cordova Island, from the Mexican to the American side.

Later, the Arbitration of 1911 awarded the Chamizal to Mexico, but the land remained disputed and Americans continued to live there. Cordova Island, an essential “no-man’s land” for decades, became a haven for illicit activities from drug smuggling to human smuggling. Both the Chamizal and Cordova Island remained a source of friction between the countries. Read more

The Return of the King — Saud Visits the U.S.

Visits by dignitaries of other countries can be quite productive and even pleasant or, depending on the state of bilateral relations and the scale of faux pas, tetchy and awkward.

Such was the case with King Saud, who ruled over Saudi Arabia from 1953-1964 and visited the United States two times during his reign— an official visit in 1957 and an informal visit in 1962. The first visit had more than its share of tensions — a three-day visit stretched out to nine, an excessively large coterie with some Saudis sleeping in tents across from the White House.

But it was the second, when Saud was in the U.S. for medical care, which really threatened to set relations back, as President Kennedy had to be dragged to see the King, while the White House insisted on serving alcohol during the dinner — during Ramadan no less. Read more

Brazil’s Long Detour on the Road to Democracy

Brazil’s path to democracy was far from perfect and often tortuous. In 1961, a “possibly half insane” Janio Quadros was elected to the presidency. One of his more miscalculated moves was to threaten resignation if Congress did not give him more power. Congress instead accepted his resignation, and his successor, Joao “Jango” Goulart became President. Goulart, however, was much too leftist for most people and on March 31st 1964, he was overthrown by Brazil’s Armed Forces; U.S. involvement was suspected, but denied by Ambassador Lincoln Gordon. What followed was a military dictatorship that ruled for twenty years with an iron fist, often torturing its own citizens under the guise of maintaining order.  Read more

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

                                                                       Or does it explode?

                                                                                    — Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” 1951 Read more

Averell Harriman, The Old Crocodile of Diplomacy

W. Averell Harriman was one of the more prominent public figures of the 20th Century, holding major positions in diplomacy, government, and business. Harriman served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1943, and later to Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1946.  Less than a year into his position of Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Harriman was selected as the Secretary of Commerce by President Harry S. Truman. He was then put in charge of the Marshall Plan to rebuild infrastructure and support the economies of Europe after the destruction of World War II.

His political ambitions came to the fore when he was elected Governor of New York in 1954. He was a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1952 and again in 1956 but lost out to Adlai Stevenson both times. Although unsuccessful, Harriman became a respected advisor in the Democratic Party and went on to hold numerous positions in the government. In the Kennedy Administration, Harriman served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and in 1963, he became the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. In these positions, he was a key negotiator in the Vietnam peace talks.

As the following interviews demonstrate, Harriman was at once a brilliant, indefatigable diplomat but one who often could be imposing with those he worked with. A few even note how Harriman had the somewhat annoying habit of removing his hearing aid when he no longer bothered to pay attention to what others were saying. Others mention the pride they felt when they watched him in action, and underscore his honed political instincts and his commitment to service.

In Harriman’s own oral history, at the end of the article, he recalls his whirlwind trip to brief countries on LBJ’s initiative on the Vietnam War. John Melby talks about his impressions with Harriman in Moscow during World War II. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in June 1989. Thomas W. Wilson and Ambassador Ulric Haynes, Jr. discuss Harriman’s roles managing the Marshall Plan and as Governor of New York during interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1996 and April 2011, respectively.  John Howard Morrow discusses Harriman’s visit to Guinea and a meeting with President Ahmed Sékou Touré in a May 1981 interview with Celestine Tutt.  Theodore J.C. Heavner, Edward C. Ingraham, Ambassador Henry L.T. Koren, Frank N. Burnet, and Albert Ashton Lakeland, Jr. were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy from June 1989 to May 1997.  Thomas L. Hughes, Frederic L. Chapin, and Walter Roberts provide anecdotes about Harriman’s various roles after working on Vietnam during interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Horace G. Torbert, and Cliff Grace in July 1999, May 1989, and September 1990, respectively.

You can also read this short anecdote about Harriman’s meeting with Tito.

Return to Fascinating Figures

Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

 

“He thought he was going to deal with Stalin as he had with Churchill”

John Melby

Moscow, Acting Director for the Office of War Information, 1943-45

What was Harriman like, as a boss?

MELBY: Well, I thought he was pretty good. He had a few misconceptions to get over. When he arrived, he thought he was going to deal with Stalin as he had with Churchill. He was just going to spend weekends at Stalin’s dacha, wherever that would be. And it was going to be “Joe” and “Ave” and so on. And, as it turned out, Harriman didn’t even see Stalin for weeks. It took him a long time before he could present his credentials. Stalin was a busy man, and he wasn’t about to sit around and gossip with one of these upstart ambassadors. Averell never did have anything but correct, pleasant relations — but he got along with Stalin all right.

He used to have to see Stalin when it suited his purposes, which was usually after midnight. Of course, Stalin went to work at midnight. And then he worked all night, the rest of the night. Slept all day. It was a kind of an irregular life. But if the Russians wanted to live that way, that was their business. After all, it was their country. So, Harriman never got to know anybody. I mean, he knew Molotov, the Foreign Minister, but it was strictly on a very formal basis.

Q: How was he as a boss? Did he give you a difficult time? Was he a difficult person to work for?

MELBY: Not at all. He was very easy to work for. He liked the Foreign Service, appreciated it. He had great respect for language officers we had there, whom I was not one. He enjoyed [Deputy Chief of Mission George] Kennan and got along well. He was a man with a lot of peculiarities and strange mannerisms sometimes. He very seldom went to the chancery. He set up his office in his own bedroom. He had a huge bedroom in Spaso [House, the official U.S. Residence], and he worked there. He went down to the chancery only once a month or every other week. So he never had his office in the chancery, which was right on Red Square in those days.

“He was a man who was absolutely totally committed to what he was doing. He worked like a dog.”

Thomas W. Wilson

Information Officer for the Marshall Plan in Paris, 1942 to 1952

WILSON: I did know Harriman very well and worked with him several times. I don’t know anybody who worked with him, if they could work with him, who didn’t love him. He was a man who was absolutely totally committed to what he was doing. He worked like a dog. He expected you to also, but he didn’t expect you to do anything he didn’t do himself.

He was really a wonderfully effective person. Everybody felt they had to respect him. I’m not talking about the non-Americans with which we had to deal. I think quite apart from the fact that sure he was a very welcome man – he was an ambassador, and he was running in this case the Marshall Plan. He was running a program that the Europeans were absolutely dependent on. But I think he was, now that we begin to talk about it, very persuasive in private.

He was never a very good speaker. If you are talking about diplomacy, I’m talking about private diplomacy. He always knew what he was talking about. I think he was probably more responsible than any other individual in forcing the Europeans to take the Marshall Plan in a way that I think became ultimately its most important impact. That is to say, I don’t know if he’s responsible for this but we, the United States Government, refused to deal with the French and the Italians and the rest of them, nation by nation, which they all wanted. They thought they could get more from us I guess.

He insisted that it be a European plan, that they put together their requirements subject to our review and approval, but that they do it themselves; but that they not do what all of them tried to start doing which was to face their terrible economic problems on a national basis. All of them wanted to deal with their problems by cutting imports and exports. They wanted to nationalize their currencies, and in any event, I think he had more to do with it than anybody else, insisting on a daily, practical day-to-day basis that this was a European recovery program. They had to present their combined requirements. We would allocate against it. They would then have to re-divide it among themselves. They could not do it by nationalist priorities.

“JFK asked Harriman to tour Africa to give him advice on the formulation of American foreign policy”

Ulric Haynes Jr.

Ambassador to Algeria, 1977 to 1981

HAYNES: As it turned out, my first job was with the New York State Department of Commerce. I was working as an assistant to their legal counsel and I got that job — oddly enough for two reasons. I got it because Averell Harriman was the Governor of New York State at that time, and he was running for reelection. And he thought — and his people thought — it would be a good idea for him to appoint a young black attorney to his team in order to attract the black vote in New York State. That was one reason. The second reason was as a law student, I had worked as a freshman counselor on the undergraduate campus of Yale University. It was a way of getting my room and board paid. And one of my counselees was a young man named Peter Duchin, the bandleader Eddie Duchin’s son. And Peter Duchin was Averell Harriman’s godson….

So when Peter heard that Harriman was interested in my getting a job in his administration, Peter waded in and told his godfather, “Hey look, you got to hire this guy. He’s my friend.” And the rest is history….

Later on in about 1960, ’61 when I was working for the Ford Foundation in Nigeria, John F. Kennedy asked Averell Harriman to make a tour of the emerging nations of Africa to give him advice on the formulation of American foreign policy in Africa. Harriman got in touch with me in Nigeria and asked me to accompany him on his mission to Africa because I was again, fluent in French and familiar with Africa. And during that fascinating trip I was able to meet Léopold Senghor, Felix Houphouet-Boigny in the Ivory Coast, and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, as well as Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and the Abbé Fulbert Youlou in the Congo-Brazzaville….

[On] my trip with Harriman to the Congo with Lumumba, you will recall that the Americans, there has always been a suspicion — never proven, yet — that we were — our CIA was — involved with the demise of Patrice Lumumba (with Harriman, at left). And one of the reasons why we wanted Lumumba out of the way was that he was cozying up to the Soviet Union, realizing that, that this was a way of, of playing his cards in a way to get something from both the Soviet Union and the United States.

But it’s interesting, Lumumba was very, very conscious of the fact that the Americans were trying to subvert his government. He was very, very suspicious of the activities of the CIA in the Congo at the time. And I’ll never forget when Harriman went to his office to speak to him (he was prime minister at the time) about U.S. relations, he ushered us both (I was interpreting) into his bathroom.

He would not speak in his formal study because he was suspicious that it was being bugged. And the gist of his conversation was a complaint about the subversive activities of the American government.

Q: How did you find you were received in these places because black African Americans weren’t that plentiful in our Diplomatic Service or represented anywhere.

HAYNES: But I was received — generally received with surprise. And I’ll give you two anecdotes. When I went to the Congo with Averell Harriman just before Kennedy assumed office, I was driven around – I can’t remember how this happened — by a Congolese who was a junior executive in an American oil company in the Congo. In retrospect, I believe that he was one of the CIA contacts in the Congo.

And on one of our drives in the capital city, at that time called Leopoldville, we were at a checkpoint by Congolese soldiers. It was more than a little unnerving for me because one of the soldiers put a gun through the open window on the side where I was sitting. We were in a Volkswagen Beetle. And he said something to the Congolese who was driving me which I could not understand because they were speaking Lingala. And after a heated discussion, we were allowed to pass. And you know, after we passed, I asked my escort, “What was this all about?” He was a little embarrassed and he said, “Well, he, he wanted to know — the soldier wanted to know where I was going with that white man.” And it was a great awakening for me to come to the realization that, to most Africans, looking at African Americans, we are obviously people of mixed race. 

Q: Well, had you been keeping up your political ties?

HAYNES: Keeping up? I had many friends in the State Department, going back to my early days, and I had one benefactor who remembered me well, and that was W. Averell Harriman. He was no slouch when it came to pushing his Secretary of State or his President. He was very much the respected elder statesman. And he was the one who recommended me for the post of ambassador to Algeria.

I was proud to be on the scene that day to witness Harriman in action”

John Howard Morrow

Ambassador to Guinea, 1959 to 1961

MORROW:  Fortunately for the United States, the Presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, had arranged to send Governor Averell Harriman to Africa on a fact-finding mission in August 1960. Guinea officials did not conceal from me their pleasure at the fact that Harriman was including their country in his tour. Although the Governor came as a private citizen, he was greeted with the pomp and ceremony afforded official visitors. The Guinean Government wanted Harriman to occupy one of President [Ahmed Sekou] Touré’s guest homes, but he decided to stay at the Hotel de France. As already indicated, the official Residence, which we were occupying, had no facilities for visiting dignitaries.

At the Governor’s insistence, I was present at his meeting with the Guinean ministers as well as at his meetings with President Touré and his Cabinet. I made it a point, however, to see to it that Governor Harriman had the opportunity to speak privately with President Touré at the buffet dinner given in his honor at the Présidence. It was during this dinner, apparently, that Touré told his visitor that I was one of the most trusted and respected members of the diplomatic corps in Guinea.

The high point in the Harriman visit came during the meeting involving Touré, his Cabinet, Harriman and myself. We had assembled in the Cabinet Room, upstairs in the Présidence. The meeting started on a humorous note. The Governor had prefaced his remarks by telling the Guineans that he and I were good friends but we had one major difference in that we belonged to different political parties. Upon hearing these remarks, I half rose from my seat and with a perfectly straight face offered to leave the room so that the Governor would feel free to talk to Touré. President Touré and his Cabinet members, Governor Harriman and I joined the hearty laughter that met this gesture, which had been understood by all those present.

I was proud to be on the scene that day to witness Harriman in action. He was at all times direct and to the point and could be very blunt when the occasion warranted it. He made no apologies for those things for which America stood. He spoke the language easily understood and appreciated by Touré, who responded in kind, and also revealed what was on his mind. There was no room for misunderstanding during that meeting.

We caught a glimpse of Harriman as he might have been during his ambassadorship to the Soviet Union. All of us were pleased with the meeting of minds. I had the opportunity to talk with Governor Harriman for a few hours, at least four hours, during a combination breakfast-lunch at the Présidence the day before he left Guinea. We explored the problems confronting the United States not only in Guinea but also in Africa in general. I stressed my belief that America could make a real contribution to Africa in the areas of health, education and social welfare.

Before leaving the Présidence, Governor Harriman graciously presented me with his book, Peace with Russia, on the flyleaf of which he had written, “For John Morrow with admiration for the fine job you are doing and many thanks for your warm hospitality. Averell Harriman, August 1960.”

Q: The other question I wanted to ask had to do with our relations with Guinea after that visit. How did that visit affect future relations between the United States and Guinea?

MORROW: Well, the real impact of and significance of this meeting came actually after Kennedy became President. And a decision was made about the change of ambassador because of the change of party. And the fact that Kennedy had sent Governor Averell Harriman to visit not only Africa but specifically Guinea. And on the recommendations of Harriman — Harriman was there three days; he had very frank talks about the situation — Kennedy paid attention to the observations, I’m sure, made by Harriman, and he also paid attention to some of the reports which we had been sending back all along to Washington that had been ignored. 

Q: What kind of reports?

MORROW: Reports on the fact that some effort really should be made to take Guinea seriously and to set up a type of aid program that would be beneficial to them. You see, my emphasis was always on health and education and Harriman agreed with it. Not military, military suppliers or big stadia or the showy things, but something that really would affect the people…

But then fate came into the picture with [JFK’s] assassination and, of course, after that there was obviously a change. But there was a great hope, I’m sure, among the Guineans, as soon as Kennedy came into office, and then the fact that he had Touré make a visit in 1962 (read about their meeting at Disneyland), and it was in contrast that he was there on the spot and Touré had the chance to feel, ‘Oh I’m meeting a friend.’ It was a different situation altogether.

The tragedy is that Kennedy was removed from the scene … but, then, that affected not only the Guinean situation but affected the American situation. Very unique happening, however, to see a Senator and an African leader establish a type of rapport which was established from that meeting on. The kind of welcome we received in Guinea was carefully noted and reported by diplomats of the West and of the East, for everything that was done by the United States and by any one of the representatives was observed closely with the view of detecting possible implications for the future of U.S. and Guinean relations….

“If you didn’t get his attention in about the first ten seconds, you might as well forget it”

Theodore J. C. Heavner

Member of the State Department’s Vietnam Working Group, 1961 to 1963

Q: Could you talk a bit about your leaders in the Vietnam Working Group and what it was trying to do?

HEAVNER: It was already put together when I came on board in 1961… It was an interagency organization that was clearly led by State in a way that in retrospect seems kind of unusual…It was a very nice organization from my point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed all the people in it.…Harriman was Assistant Secretary then. I thought Averell Harriman was a very remarkable man. I remember him talking on the telephone, reading a draft, and interrogating me at the same time, which I thought was quite a feat.

I also learned very quickly if you didn’t get his attention in about the first ten seconds, you might as well forget it. He used to take out his hearing aid which was kind of a signal of “I’m not interested in what you are saying.” That was when Harriman was Assistant Secretary. He came in with Kennedy, as you may recall, and after a very distinguished career at much higher levels, accepted that Assistant Secretary job under Kennedy. I guess this was a real vote of confidence in Kennedy as well as something interesting for him to do….

I did have a fair amount of contact with both Hilsman and Harriman [on the Vietnam Working Group]. I remember one of the things that Harriman was very much concerned about, and rightly so as we have subsequently learned, was the use of defoliants. He thought that was a very bad idea. That destroying food crops was a form of warfare that would backfire on us. That it would be seen worldwide as an inhumane kind of weapon.

In any event, I ran into him again in 1975 when I was on Caribbean affairs and Carter had decided that all our ambassadors would be vetted and recommended by a panel of distinguished diplomats and other distinguished folks, one of whom was Averell Harriman. They were talking about each area subsequently and in due course the Caribbean came up. It was the custom that the country director, which was me in this case, was asked to join them for their consideration not of specific names but of the requirements of the chiefs of mission jobs there. Although I wasn’t asked for it, I assumed that they also wanted recommendations. Harriman was sitting down at the end of the table and I came in and sat down for my ten minutes and began to talk about the requirements for the job in the Bahamas.

About ten seconds after I began, sure enough, out came the hearing aid. I thought to myself that I had lost him again! 

“His factual knowledge of the area was just about nil but he had the most exquisitely honed political instincts”

Edward C. Ingraham

Indonesian Desk Officer, 1960 to 1965

Q: Averell Harriman was Assistant Secretary for East Asia at that time. How did he deal with you and what was his attitude towards Indonesia? 

INGRAHAM: It was interesting….By this time we could easily have broken relations and taken action against…not quite militarily, although military could have been on the horizon. Harriman fought against this.

He was a strange man. His factual knowledge of the area was just about nil. He learned a bit, but he wasn’t a great student. But he had the most exquisitely honed political instincts. You would go up to him and say, “This, this and this have happened. We think you should do this, this and this.” He would ask some very sharp questions and then say, “Okay go ahead and do it.”

You could ask him, “Well, why do you think we should?” And he would snap, “Never mind. Go ahead and do it.” The “never mind” was a way of saying, “I haven’t the faintest idea about the details of what you have proposed, but my instinct tells me to do it.” And it was a good instinct.

There was no one that Harriman would kowtow to.

“I was pretty much scared to death most of the time”

Henry L. T. Koren

State Department, Southeast Asian Affairs, 1961 to 1964

KOREN: … All of a sudden Averell Harriman called me and said, “We’re assigning you to Southeast Asian Affairs,” and I thought, “Oh, my God.”

Q: Why was that?

KOREN: He just wanted a man that he felt he could trust in Southeast Asian Affairs.

Q:  Harriman had this rather unusual appointment as assistant secretary for Asian Affairs when he was a man who was certainly eligible to have been–well, he aspired to be President, with a good reason, but also to be Secretary of State, and yet he accepted this position in Asian Affairs and it was not a sinecure at all. How would you describe Harriman as an operator, working under Harriman in Asian Affairs? 

KOREN: Well, to be quite frank, I was pretty much scared to death most of the time. I didn’t know Harriman. I had met him before, but it was purely social. His daughter was a friend of mine.

You probably heard that Harriman was considered the crocodile…That’s exactly the way it was. I used to go in and see him once in a while for various things, and I’d come back and I’d hold my arms up to my cheek and wonder where the blood was coming from.

Q: How did he treat you in these things?

KOREN: Roughly. If you didn’t measure up in his opinion and didn’t grasp the fundamental question quickly, he would tear you apart. He’d say, “What are you standing up there for that way? Good God, man.”

You know, he was very rough in language. He didn’t mean anything. He was very kindhearted personally, but he was a very tension-making individual to work for. To give you an example, two or three times he’d say, “Are you going to be in tomorrow?”

I’d say, “Sir, tomorrow’s Sunday.”

And he said, “Oh, yes, that’s right. I forget, you’re a Christer.”

But the first thing I would do in the morning was to get all the messages that had been piled up overnight and race through those just as fast as I could. I would get there well ahead of what I expected the Governor to get there, because he would call up all of a sudden and he would have seen a message and he would jump in the middle of the message and ask you, “What do you think so and so?”

Well, if you didn’t know just what the hell he was talking about, you’d stutter, and so that was something I think we all did. I did it because I had to reply to him. All the people who worked for me had to do it because I would ask them, and the old story.

Q: Yes, it moves down.

KOREN: All around the chain of command, it just moves down. It was exhilarating. You couldn’t work for Harriman without feeling there was something going on. There was not. Not tension, but excitement in the air, electricity, all the time. Anything that Harriman runs, he runs himself. 

“I kind of thought that Harriman had the right idea in what he was trying to do”

Frank N. Burnet

Staff Assistant to Governor Harriman in the Far East Bureau, 1961 to 1963

Q: What was Harriman’s operating style, from your vantage point within the Department and elsewhere?

BURNET: He’s not a man of words. I think he’s pretty much a man of action, in the sense of getting hold of the person who was vital to a particular problem or job that you had to do. Getting the right word to the right person at the right time. He’s very good at that. He, of course, is extremely well connected all over Washington. As part of the job, he made it very plain to me that I was going to be asked to do certain things. He didn’t say so in so many words, but when he wanted something done, it was to be done.

And if it meant sneaking a piece of paper outside of the normal chain in the State Department directly to the White House, he’d say, “Frank, I want you to get this over to so and so in the White House right away.” And he said, “Don’t mention this to anybody in S/S [the Secretariat Staff]”

The paper chain would go from the Assistant Secretary level on up to the Secretary in S/S, where it would be properly recorded and reproduced, and then sent in proper fashion, in their own sweet time, to the White House. Well, lots of times in a fast-breaking situation there wasn’t enough time for that, so he would ask me to take this over to the White House right away, and I’d do that.

But he was frequently on the telephone to the White House, or telephone to God-knows-where. He was quite a doer. Lots of meetings held in his office. We’d have people coming in almost every day from CIA, and certainly from AID [Agency for International Development]. In those days, Laos took up an inordinate amount of time. That was the hot spot and involved all of us quite a bit.

 “He was blaming the whole thing on me. But I must say that I took a certain pleasure in the event.”

Albert Ashton Lakeland, Jr.

Desk Officer at NEA Indian Affairs from 1963 to 1965

ASHTON:  I experienced the kind of amusing thing that happens to Foreign Service officers from time to time where the high and the mighty get their comeuppance when they step on the toes of a Foreign Service officer.

I was given the job of taking Harriman over to Parliament to meet Nehru. He was having these big discussions with Nehru. We got into the Ambassador’s limousine. Now in India they drive on the British side. I used to go to Parliament almost everyday and knew that when cars come in there they are going to open the door on the left hand side and there is little room to open a door on the right hand side. So I got around and sat in the right hand side going there.

Mr. Harriman took great umbrage about this. He asked me what I thought I was doing sitting in the place of honor. I tried to explain to him that when we arrive at Parliament you really want to be on the left hand side because of the way you enter.

He said, “Don’t argue with me young man. This is the flag seat. You get over there and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” I said, “Okay.” He was in a terrible mood about something and he just wouldn’t listen.

Well, we drive up in this narrow space and this Indian in his full guard uniform opens the door and I am sitting there. Nehru is holding out his hand and I step aside and Harriman is across the way sitting there stony faced. He didn’t know what to do. It would have been very difficult for him to slide across because of the big bump in the floor.

So he is sort of sitting there stony faced waiting for somebody to open the door. Finally somebody comes in and gets his door partly opened. He gets out and is standing there on the other side of the car looking very uncomfortable and flustered.

He comes around behind the car and I am standing aside there and he just shot me a dirty look. He never said a word about my being right or anything like that. He was blaming the whole thing on me. But I must say that I took a certain pleasure in the event.

“He also had ups and downs. His influence was episodic.”

Thomas L. Hughes

Assistant to the Under Secretary, 1961; Deputy Director of Intelligence & Research (INR), 1961 to 1963 

Q: What about the role of Averell Harriman at that time?

HUGHES:…Instead of the image others held of him as a grand old man, he thought of himself as eternally young. He was also a wild card, and he was always available. At first Jack Kennedy had doubts about Harriman’s loyalty, because Averell had been so disdainful of Joe Kennedy, his father. But you couldn’t have had a more devoted Kennedy supporter than Averell the morning after the election. I think Kennedy thought he would give him an impossible assignment like Laos to see what he could do with it.

Harriman was quite willing to humble himself to do this, but he was not called “the crocodile” for nothing. He would cut people off with his sharp, quick tongue. He was irascible, rather unpredictable, and not necessarily always coherent. He would snap at this and snap at that. He turned off his hearing aid when people got boring. Kennedy was amused at that. I got to know Averell quite well during the Kennedy-Johnson years, and our friendship continued for years afterwards until his death. Jean and I often saw the Harrimans socially, both with his first wife Marie and later with Pamela. Occasionally we were guests for dinner at their house in Georgetown, or on weekends at their estate in Middleburg.

In April 1963, Kennedy appointed the three of us to new positions at State — Harriman, [Roger] Hilsman, and Hughes — “the three H’s” Rusk called us, when swearing us in at the same ceremony on the Seventh Floor at State. On that occasion Harriman was elevated to an Under Secretary position, having just served as Assistant Secretary for East Asia. Hilsman succeeded him in East Asia, and I succeeded Hilsman in INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research]. By that time Laos was more or less behind us, and Vietnam was about to become a high priority problem.

Q: Wherever he sat, Harriman brought power with him.

HUGHES: Yes, power of a kind, but he also had ups and downs. His influence was episodic. After the Diem assassination controversy in late 1963 [in Vietnam], he played a lonely and lesser role. He chaired the Special Group (CI) on counter-insurgency, with mixed results. The significance of his assignments rose again in 1968 with the Vietnamese peace negotiations in Paris. Of course this is a man who thought throughout that he should have been President himself…. 

“He worked a full day and had extraordinary hours for a man who was 75.”

Frederic L. Chapin

Special Assistant to Averell Harriman from 1963 to 1965

Q: Averell Harriman still had very considerable political aspirations at that time…

CHAPIN: I don’t know that he had any aspirations to return but he certainly had important clout and he was responsible after Kennedy’s assassination for arranging for Robert Kennedy’s campaign and nomination as Senator from New York. I remember seeing all the fat cats from New York troop into Averell Harriman’s office and, naturally, that was one of the meetings that I did not take part in.

But it was a curious set-up. Just outside the Governor’s office, and it’s still that way today although there’s a curtain that is often drawn across it, is an office where the special assistant sits who controls all traffic to and from the Governor’s desk on official matters. And, there’s a solid glass wall all the way down so that you can see what’s going on and be beckoned to come into the office. Working for Harriman was a most unusual experience.

I had not been sufficiently briefed by Bill Sullivan as to what to expect. He worked a full day and had extraordinary hours for a man who was 75. I had to be there at 8:00 because he would be there before 9:00 and I had to get all his agenda items. He was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. He saw an amazing amount of foreign dignitaries and took part in a lot of high-level meetings so there were a lot of briefing papers to arrange and, of course, there was the overnight cable traffic.

I would go in as soon as the Governor arrived, and he would stand behind his desk and shuffle papers and look at these briefing memoranda and all the time he wanted me to brief him orally on the most important issues on his desk. He was apparently paying no attention whatsoever to what I was saying, shuffling these papers around, looking in his in-box, and I would go on spouting to this person who was apparently paying no attention to what I had to say, and then I would sit in meetings with him later in the day and my sentences would roll out. Incredible!

Q: He didn’t turn his hearing aid off at that time when you were talking to him.

CHAPIN: He didn’t turn it off if he wanted to hear what I had to say, but I have seen him in meetings not only turn his hearing aid off but take it out. It was an extraordinary performance.…

The most interesting case that I got involved in was a speech which G. Mennen Williams (read about Soapy Williams’ predilection for square-dancing) was going to make a speech at Harvard to national radio and T.V. on our policy towards South Africa. Governor Harriman was away on one of his speaking tours when Rudy Agree, who was the Special Assistant for Governor Williams, brought out to my house one evening about 8:30 or 9:00 the text of the speech that the Governor was proposing to make the next afternoon about 2:00 or 3:00 in Boston and I read through the first pages and scanned the rest.

Governor Williams proposed to use language about South Africa which we scarcely used toward the Japanese during World War II, and never used about the Germans. I said that I simply could not clear this for the Governor. I said he was going to be back the next morning and the first order of business I underlined certain passages and would discuss them with the Governor and I’m sorry that the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs would have to wait until Governor Harriman had had a chance to look at this personally. Well, in one of these stand-up sessions that we were having, Abe Chayes, the Legal Advisor came in. His name appeared at the bottom of the list as having cleared it, and Harriman said, “Have you cleared this?”

And Chayes said, “Yes.”

Harriman said to me, “Fred, you read him that sentence.” So I read him the sentence. “Did you approve that?”

Chayes looked very embarrassed. “Fred, read him that next sentence.” And this went on and then Joe Sisco came in. He was then Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and his name appeared as having cleared it.

Harriman said, “Joe, did you clear this?” Joe said, “Yes.”

“Read him the sentence.”

Well, at that point Chayes and Sisco and I adjourned to this glass-walled cubicle that I had outside the Governor’s office and Assistant Secretary G. Mennen Williams came up. Chayes and Sisco began reading this document for the first time. Somebody had cleared it in their offices and they started scratching out great sections and the next thing I knew, this whole party adjourned to the White House to McGeorge Bundy’s office where they cut out huge sections and, meanwhile, cancelled national and radio coverage for the Harvard speech. It was much emasculated…

I had been on that job as Special Assistant for two years and I said that Harriman had work habits that were intensive. He was there until 8:00 every night, five days a week and Saturday he’d come in maybe at 9:30 or so and would stay until 6:00.

In fact, I recall one Saturday afternoon he turned to me as I was sitting in his office and he said, “Fred, what are we going to do this afternoon?” And, I thought we had done quite a lot. And, Sundays I had to go down to the Department and read the telegrams, make a selection, and take them out to his house. I didn’t have the benefit of any State Department driver on Sundays and had to slog through the slush and whatnot of Georgetown.

I was terrified of having an accident and having all this highly classified material on me in transit to the Governor’s house and on return from the Governor’s house to the Department to lock it up securely. So that [on] Sundays I wouldn’t get back to lunch until about 3:00, so this was a 6-1/2 day-a-week job. I rarely saw the children before they went to bed.

“Where do you want me to go?” He said, “That’s for you to decide.””

Averell Harriman

On LBJ and Vietnam

Q: When did your close acquaintance with Lyndon Johnson begin?

HARRIMAN: I don’t know when it began. I think I first met him when he was Congressman during the Roosevelt Administration but I don’t recall. But of course, I knew him well when he was a Senator, when he was Majority Leader, and I had some talks with him during the ’50’s, during the period he was Majority Leader. I took a good deal of interest in the Democratic Party because I was a member of the Advisory Council to the National Committee….

We used to meet regularly and discuss matters of concern to the Democratic Party…The subjects which we discussed were not subjects that were necessarily before the Congress, since there were many issues we felt should be developed that were not before Congress as a platform for the Democratic Party in ’56 and again in ’60….We had some very blunt and heated talks–there were differences of opinion on a number of points which I felt were quite important at the time. I gave it a considerable amount of time, not only at the meetings, but in preparing for the meetings and going over positions on different subjects.

Q: Many of Mr. Johnson’s critics when he was President have made the point that he wasn’t interested in his earlier career in foreign affairs at all. While you served President Truman, either in the White House or as Mutual Security Administrator, did Mr. Johnson ever take any interest in the foreign affairs side? Did he ever come by and talk to you about it?

HARRIMAN:…He used to come to breakfast occasionally, I used to see him. I remember he reminded me of that. He had an extraordinarily good memory. He reminded me of some of the breakfasts we used to have when I had the house on Foxhall Road [in Washington, DC], some of the members of the Senate used to come…I always thought of him as a very loyal supporter of President Truman in the positions that he took. Naturally the people that would be most in my mind were those that took an adverse position.

Of course in the earlier days, 1948, we used to see a great deal of Senator Vandenberg, who was then Republican majority chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. He played an important role in helping President Truman get the Marshall Plan legislation through–then eventually  the NATO. Those talks I remember rather well. I remember President Johnson very well as an active supporter on the Hill of the basic Democratic party principles, a very close supporter as I recall, in every aspect of business I had anything to do with, of President Truman during that very critical period….

The most intimate relationships that I had with the President  [Johnson], when he became President, related to the peace efforts he made. He sent me on a trip in December 1965 to a number of countries. It was just before New Year’s and I remember very well his calling me on the telephone and he said, ‘Averell, have you got your bags packed?”

I said, ‘Well, it’s always packed, Mr. President.”

He said, “[Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara is here with me. He’s got an airplane waiting for you to take you to Europe.” I said, ‘Where do you want me to go?” He said, “That’s for you to decide.” Then he explained what he wanted to do. He said he was going to continue the Christmas pause in bombing the North [Vietnam] for a period, and he wanted to get support for his peace move. He wanted to get peace negotiations started, and I left that evening at 8:00 o’clock, as I recall it. I had no instructions, of course, except the general instructions which he gave me….

[T]he Soviet Union helped us both during October to create conditions which made it possible for President Johnson to stop the bombing in North Vietnam as he did in November 1968, and then again in January helped us end this rather ridiculous undignified discussion on the shape of the table. They brought heat to bear on the Hanoi delegation to stop that nonsense and to agree upon a compromise. Actually it wasn’t a compromise. It practically accepted one of the suggestions that had been made from Saigon, so Saigon couldn’t refuse…

I used to talk to the Secretary of State about this, and he said, “Well, if the Russians really want to help end the conflict, all they have to do is stop giving weapons to Hanoi.” I think we’ve got to recognize the Russians, so stated by Mr. Kosygin, look upon North Vietnam as what he calls a “Sister Socialist State.” It is their obligation as the great leader of the Communist movement, it’s their obligation to support North Vietnam just as we considered it our obligation to support South Vietnam…

I remember one very extraordinary day on which I had already stopped at Indonesia and I had seen the three principal members of that government, I stopped at Ceylon, and that was an interesting visit because not very many people visit Ceylon, and I’m glad I did because Ceylon is quite an influential Buddhist state, and they had been attempting to work with the Saigon government and with the Thai government to improve their relations and it was quite interesting. And I went to New Delhi and I saw Mrs. Gandhi and I spent the night. I remember having breakfast with Ambassador Bowles. Then I saw President Ayub, had lunch with him. I had to go to Peshawar and take a separate plane to go down to Rawalpindi. Then on to Tehran. I had tea with the Shah and I arrived in Rome just in time for a live 11:00 o’clock broadcast on television.

Q: That was some day!

HARRIMAN: That was one of the fullest days that I’ve had. But I felt it was very important. I was in a particular hurry on that trip because I thought if I went quickly to places it was important.…

Q: Did any of the visits on that trip result in any initiatives toward negotiations with Hanoi?

HARRIMAN: No. The purpose of this trip was quite a different purpose….The purpose of the trip was to inform them about the Manila Conference; to inform them of the efforts the President was making for peaceful settlement; to get support for the President’s initiative for peace. And I didn’t ask them to take any immediate steps. I emphasized the fact that the President sat at a round table with six Asian leaders as equals, which impressed them; the favorable military developments of South Vietnam; the limited objective that the President had of letting the people of South Vietnam decide their own future. These were all matters which they were interested in–the constitutional procedures which had been established. It was more a general effort to get a more sympathetic attitude towards what we were doing among these countries than it was to ask them to do anything particular for peace….

 

Vietnam, A Look Back

The Vietnam War remains one of the most contentious foreign policy issues in American history. U.S. military involvement was initially justified in view of the domino theory, the widely held belief that a failure to prevent the spread of Communism in Vietnam would ultimately to Communist victories in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Incidents such as the My Lai Massacre and the Tet Offensive convinced Americans that the War was turning into an unwinnable – and immoral – stalemate and that the toll in American lives was too high a burden. The U.S. eventually withdrew in 1973, after which South Vietnam fell to the Communist North. Over 40 years later, the debate over whether U.S. intervention in Vietnam was warranted in many ways echoes the ongoing discussions over U.S. missions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Read more

“The State Department has always been a whipping boy”

Charles “Chip” Bohlen (August 30, 1904 – January 1, 1974) served in the Foreign Service from 1929 to 1969 and succeeded George Kennan as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1953–1957). He later served as Ambassador to the Philippines (1957–1959), and to France (1962–1968) and was one of the nonpartisan foreign policy advisors known as “The Wise Men.”

When the United States resumed diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1933, Bohlen was named vice consul under Ambassador William C. Bullitt. In 1939 he learned details of the Russo-German pact which led to the Nazi attack on Poland, starting World War II. Bohlen was assigned to Tokyo in 1940 and he was interned for several months with other embassy personnel after Pearl Harbor. In 1943 he served as FDR’s interpreter at the Tehran Conference and later at Yalta. He attended the United Nations conference at San Francisco and went to the 1945 Potsdam conference as President Harry Truman’s interpreter. Bohlen’s nomination to be Ambassador to the USSR was opposed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who attacked Bohlen for his role at Yalta; he eventually won Senate confirmation by a vote of 74-13. McCarthy’s performance marked the beginning of McCarthy’s demise. Bohlen later served as Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Kennedy Administration. He died of cancer in 1973 at age 69.

In these excerpts from his oral history, taken in November 20, 1968, Bohlen discusses the ever-present problem of poor Foreign Service morale, the State Department as whipping boy, the plague of McCarthyism, his dislike of summits, Vietnam, revisionist history, and the role of the U.S. in the world. He was interviewed by Paige Mulhollan of the LBJ Library. This interview is courtesy of the National Archives and Records Service of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.  You can also read about Robert Strauss’s experiences as Ambassador to Russia.

Return to Fascinating Figures

Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

 

Poor morale and the State Department as “whipping boy”

Q: I’m afraid the State Department doesn’t have a very good press sometimes. 

BOHLEN: Oh, well, the State Department never does. You just find out one thing. The State Department does not have a constituency in the United States politically…. It has always been a natural whipping boy, and I suppose it always will. In the first place, since you’ve raised the subject, it doesn’t have any constituency. By this I mean that it does not employ thousands of people the way the big Departments do all over the United States. Its operations are concentrated in Washington and abroad and nowhere else.

Secondly, since it deals with the foreigner, it is the State Department representative that has to go before Congress and in effect present the case for the foreign country which in their eye somehow makes them look as though they are proponents of the foreign position and not that of an American one. It is the way things inevitably work out, it doesn’t have anything to do with any particular sympathy. But no one else is going to present, say, the case for any country you want to name. It’s got to be made clear why they need this aid or why they need this military assistance and all this. And you have to sort of argue their case.

Now, in general, you know, in any country where patriotism sometimes has a tinge of chauvinism in it, that anybody who does this is regarded as un-American, and this is the case particularly for the operation of this Department, where nine-tenths of its work is abroad. 

Q: The claim that’s frequently made when they talk about what has recently been called the “sad state of State,” is, that it’s unadministerable. Does this have some accuracy in it? 

BOHLEN: Well, there’s no doubt about it, the American system of separation of powers was not designed for the conduct of foreign affairs. It was designed for the conduct of non-foreign affairs, really. If you look at the Constitution and you really read the contemporary writings and opinions that are expressed, you can see that one of the great anxieties of the Founding Fathers, so-called, was that this young, struggling republic would get itself involved in foreign affairs before it was ready to do anything about it.

And, therefore, a certain amount of safeguards were built in, but this was not the reason for the separation of powers, which was to avoid the concentration of too much power in too few hands. But it certainly has not been set up, as I say, for the conduct of foreign relations, and it sometimes has cost the American taxpayer a good deal of money because of the time that it takes to get measures through Congress. In a cabinet system of government, such as the British, the French, Germans — any of them have — as long as the government is in power, it is both legislative and executive.…

Q: The feeling of the career officer, the morale, is frequently mentioned as a weakness of the current State Department. Is that an accurate assessment?

BOHLEN: Well, in a way it is. You see, the Foreign Service of the United States has grown so unbelievably in the last twenty years, and the requirements for admission are so high, and yet an awful lot of the work — I’d say fully 50 percent of the work in the Foreign Service abroad is really routine work. And this is something that no one has licked.

You’ve got to have high requirements to enter because any one of the young people coming in could rise to positions of responsibility. And when you’re abroad, even a vice consul can do things that can harm or help the reputation and standing of the United States in a given country.

But then when you get this high degree of qualifications, education and so forth, and then you have to apply them to really routine tasks, you get a certain amount of discontent. It’s bad for morale. For example, when I joined the Foreign Service in 1929, the total officer corps of the Foreign Service, including Ministers and Ambassadors, was 732.…

Now, there are 3,500 officers in the Foreign Service proper. I couldn’t tell you how many there are in the USIA [the now defunct U.S. Information Agency], or how many there are in AID [Agency for International Development], but certainly the total must run up around 7-8,000 at least. Now, they’re not all competing in the same personnel system because the 3,500 are the ones who are really, so to speak, competing; but you can see the enormous increase in the broadening of the base, and this does create problems which have not yet been licked.… [Note:  The Foreign Service today has some 15,000 people; AID about 3,900.]

McCarthyism

Q: You yourself were one of the victims of the attacks that have been made on the Americanism in McCarthy times. 

BOHLEN: McCarthy was a product of sixteen years of being out of office. This is what it was. And therefore McCarthy came along — and there’s no point, he’s dead now, so let him stay in his grave — but this was a purely sort of a opportunistic — I mean he didn’t have any deep conviction on this stuff about Communism in government.

The story that I believe to be true was that there was a luncheon held across from the Mayflower Hotel at which there was a Catholic priest, a fired correspondent from the old Times Herald in Washington, and somebody else, and McCarthy.

And McCarthy was complaining of the fact that he’d been 10 years, something like that, in the Senate and hadn’t made a name for himself, at all, and somebody mentioned the fact that Communists in government was a good thesis, and the correspondent offered to write him a speech to be delivered in Wheeling, West Virginia, which he did.…That’s the start of it [in 1950].

And it grew and it grew and it grew, and as I say, part of it — the reason that he got a certain amount of support from the Republican Party is that the Republican Party was just avid for power at that time. And the country for the first time in history was a little bit scared by the fact that you could have war with a country that could reach you, namely the Soviet Union.

And then the discovery of a number of Communists in government all fed this thing. And for the first time in the history of the United States the people felt alarmed. And this is what produced this disagreeable and very unfortunate aberration known as McCarthyism because I think we’re still living with some of the consequences. 

Q: Do you think that McCarthyism did have a long-term effect on the State Department and upon Foreign Service particularly? 

BOHLEN: I would say no. I wouldn’t say it had a long-term effect. I think it had much more an effect over the period on the national consciousness, particularly in the academic world because that was one of his targets, you know; he was always after professors. I think this had a certain effect. I remember telling Senator [Karl] Mundt [R-South Dakota] at the time when the McCarthy thing was on, saying, you know, this thing is going to make it impossible for us to do any serious job of analysis of the Communist problem. It’s going to so sicken the people when they turn against McCarthy on the idea that it’s going to make anything that’s anti-Communist very discredited.

Q: But the departure of a great number of Foreign Service Officers in the long run?

BOHLEN: There were some victims. There were some very, very bad cases of rank injustices that were done, I think, due to McCarthy. One of them, of course, is John Davies, who used to be one of the best Foreign Service Officers we had. [Read about his colleague John S. Service, who also was a victim of McCarthyism.] But because of the pressures of the time and things like that, he was let go — not on any grounds of disloyalty but simply on the grounds of that they called “bad judgment” about China.

But damn it, all of the judgments seemed to be accurate. He said that the Communists, the way things stood in China, were going to win their fight, and they did.…

Q: You went to Russia in April 1957. Just out of curiosity really, what was the Russian reaction to McCarthyism? 

BOHLEN: They were very much against it, at least publicly. It was too easy a thing, and they thought the United States was going fascist and all this sort of stuff. You’ve always got to remember that the Russians–we had been Public Enemy Number One as far as Soviet propaganda has been concerned ever since about June 1944, and that this is part of the normal procedure. They would never give the U.S. a favorable break ever, and they still don’t.

We are the chief opponent of what they are trying to do, although often what they are trying to do is not what they profess to be trying to do in the sense that they are a Communist country, that is to say, they are run by a Communist party; and ideology still plays an enormous part in their — but not as much in their foreign affairs, as much as one might think. It’s a very complicated subject…..

Summits are “a bad way of doing business”

Q: You mentioned the importance of Yalta, and of course it will be a major part of any work you write. What about the general topic, and Mr. Johnson has been involved in this, of summitry? …

BOHLEN: The Secretary of State wrote an article for Foreign Affairs before he was Secretary of State in which he disapproved of summitry. He said it was a bad way of doing business, and it is a bad way of doing business. And naturally anybody who has been in this business as long as I have, you develop some professional distortions, if you want to call it that, or perhaps experience and knowledge of things a little better than you might if you didn’t have it. And certainly the orderly processes of diplomacy would best be carried out by your ambassadors and by the quiet processes. But given the nature of the Soviet structure where only the very top can make decisions, can do anything, I think summitry is inevitable.…

The difficulty is, and any Western leader ought to be fully aware of it, the fact that you have a free public opinion in your own country means that you are under a certain amount of disability when you meet with a dictator who doesn’t have the same problem. Because it’s very much harder for a Western president, for example, coming from our society or from that of any of the democratic societies in Western Europe, to have a meeting that’s a failure.

There’s always the temptation to try to reach some form of agreement; the dictator doesn’t have that at all. But simply because the Soviet structure is built that way, there’s not much point in trying to do business, say, with [Andrei] Gromyko, whereas you can occasionally with Kosygin. This was truer in the days of Stalin than I think it is now when you really have a collective leadership.

Q: Does the personality compatibility or incompatibility sometimes loom very important? 

BOHLEN: Very little. I think it can work in a negative sense if some guy, if there were really a personality clash, if they just disliked each other instinctively, why this would hamper business; but by and large the Bolsheviks are very impersonal in their dealings….

Yalta and Revisionist History

Q: You said about Yalta publicly at the time of your appointment as Ambassador to Moscow that it was not the settlements at Yalta but the Russian violation of them that caused problems in the post-war world. 

BOHLEN: Yalta had nothing to do with sort of freezing the Eastern Europe in Russian hands. This is where the Red Army moved certain places. The agreement at Yalta merely confirmed the zonal agreements, and the only change it made was the allocation of a zone to France and a seat for France on the control council of Germany. This had nothing to do with the division of Europe which is the big question that remains unsolved and will remain unsolved as long as the Soviet Union exists in its present form. This was the imposition on these countries on the Soviet form of government. 

Q: A group of scholars sometimes referred to as the New Left or the Revisionists have argued that it was the American overreaction to certain things after 1945 that exacerbated the Cold War. I take it you disagree with that.

BOHLEN: This is perfect nonsense. I never read anything — it’s just a sign that certain scholars always want to find a new angle, a new slant to anything. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the imposition of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe which was done by the Soviets in various degrees:  in Czechoslovakia it was done in 1948; in

Hungary it came along a little earlier or later; in Bulgaria, all these things are perfectly clear. Romania was done long before there was any U.S. reaction to anything. This is really, I think, a very strained interpretation of the events.

The only place that the Russians could have done it and didn’t do it was in Finland, and there perfectly clearly they didn’t do it because they realized that Finland was just a little bit too tough a nut to crack, that there would be a lot of trouble, that there would be guerrilla warfare. In fact, Stalin said that once in a conversation with Churchill. He said, “You cannot but admire people who would be willing to fight for their country the way the Finns have.” And this has nothing to do with the reaction of the United States towards — there was no NATO at all when Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Communists.

Well, now, they go as far as to argue that we exaggerated the degree of aggressiveness of Russia after World War II. Is that a tenable argument? Well, I don’t know if you could be much more aggressive. Obviously no one thought that the Russians were prepared to go to war. In correspondence between the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union and [Yugoslav leader] Tito, you’ll see a statement that we couldn’t use the Red Army to help enforce Communism in France and Italy because it would have meant a war with the United States. This was the statement of the Soviets.

And I really haven’t read many of these books. I think it would make me too mad.

They’re just beginning to come out and they are obviously written out of the framework of Vietnam, I think. But is apparently going to be a field of scholarship that those of you who went through those years and have expert knowledge are going to have to deal with.…

I went through this whole period there, the very beginning of it, the first meeting with the Russians, continuous all the way through, and I saw a series of American attempts to really find some Basis with the Soviet Union and that every time we were thrown for a loss because the system is impenetrable….

LBJ

I think I first met Mr. Johnson when he was a Senator. He was Majority Leader.…The first time I really was associated with him was in 1961 when President Kennedy called me up and asked me if I would go to Berlin with the Vice President who he was sending over there to the building of the Wall. And we rushed over there in a relatively hurried trip. And there I saw him continuously for about 48 hours, maybe a little more.

I must say he was a very impressive man when he was on this because he was having to project his personality to the people of Berlin, and it was very well received, what he had to say was well received….

Q: What do you think if there is one that you can pick out, has been Mr. Johnson’s chief weakness as a foreign policy leader? 

BOHLEN: I don’t really know what his chief weakness is. I think it is perhaps his apparently rather strong desire for secrecy. It has been detrimental to him in his dealings with the press and the public, the fact that he has created the impression of being a sort of a contriver, a wheeler-dealer, stuff like that. I don’t know whether I can judge him from just what you hear and read in the press, and stuff like that.

This so-called credibility gap is largely a lot of nonsense but on the other hand, the very fact that you can use this is one of the impressions. But I don’t think he has ever had any sort of unworthy ambitions or unworthy aims at all. I think that he has done more than any President in the field of race relationships and domestic things. I think it’s only tragic that this damned Vietnamese thing took so much of his time and energy and so much money and all this sort of stuff as to really take it away from what I know he would want to do which would really be to deal with the domestic problems in the United States….

The Russians — they prefer to have people, sort of working and trying to get along with them, than to have a blast of Cold War stuff going on. I think they have a perfectly good regard for Mr. Johnson as President of the United States.

They naturally have built up Kennedy a little more than they would if he had remained alive as President, but then this is a — you see, the Russians are well aware that the purposes of the United States and what the purposes must be and those of the Soviet Union which stem from the system that is set up in Russia are really not compatible. But there is one thing that I think that is accepted by both sides and that is the total impossibility of having a nuclear war.…

Vietnam and U.S. involvement in the world

There’s no doubt about it but that the Vietnamese thing — [LBJ] inherited it, he did not start it, he inherited it, it came all the way down from Eisenhower through Kennedy. And the beginning in the increase of troops, it was done under President Kennedy, and so I don’t think in any way you can blame — if I can use that term — Johnson for the initiation of the Vietnamese War. It had just turned into active U.S. participation there.

My personal opinion is, and I haven’t been in the whole act so perhaps I’m not qualified to talk about it, is that we took on something that was a little more than we could really handle correctly, simply because of the limitations imposed on our actions by our own civilization and our own thoughts and the nature of guerrilla warfare is something that we were not particularly trained or equipped to handle….

The reality of the impulse that put us in there was a perfectly sound one. It didn’t have any overtones of imperialism or desire to acquire military positions or anything like that. It was simply to defend the right of a small, weak, ineffective in a sense, government, to really get the people to choose their own fate for them and not have it imposed on them by armed action from without.

Q: Why do you think it has been so difficult to explain this, not just to the general public but to a substantial portion of the informed political community?

BOHLEN: I think one of the reasons is that the United States had really a very short time to develop a national consciousness as to what world involvement meant. What are the prices that you pay for being in the world? We’d had 170 years or so of isolationism where we could stand back and take extreme positions criticizing others without being in the game.

When you are in the game, it requires a certain understanding of the fact that you are not going to win every bout, that you are not going to have 100 percent total success every time you turn around. Sometimes it is going to be bloody and long and onerous, as it is in Vietnam.

Also, the fact that this is impossible to relate to the security of the United States. You see, we are a great big country, they are a little country and whatever it is, how many thousands of miles away — 8,000 miles away from us — and it is very, very complicated — it requires a certain amount of sophisticated understanding of what a Communist system does. This domino theory which is very much discredited now is not really very untrue at all.

Engels once said that the trouble with a military frontier is one 100 kilometers farther out is preferable, and this is the same thing for us as for the Communists. When you get a Communist thing here or there, this is the frontier of the clash with the non-Communist world; and if you move it out each step it goes farther.

Q: Do you think the analogies between Asian aggression then hold to European aggression that occurred in the time that you were there? 

BOHLEN: I don’t think you can make quite the analogy with Hitler that you make with the Communists because it was a different proposition entirely. Certainly in all these weak, sort of shaky countries in eastern Asia, if we had not really done what we did in Vietnam I don’t know what would have happened. It’s very difficult for me to see that Indonesia would be turned against the Communists the way they did. And in all of them I think the tide would be running that way.

U.S. rise to dominant role

Q: Do you think it is possible within the system we have to educate public opinion? You mentioned a couple of times the shortness of time to get used to our responsibilities, and so on.

BOHLEN: I don’t know. I think it is going to take a very long time and everything goes so much quicker now. Of course, it ought to be quicker. But the point is that most countries that rose to an eminent position in the world had generations, even centuries, to become accustomed to it — like Great Britain, for example.

But we really had this dumped on us since 1947, is when it happened, when the British revealed that they did not have the strength left to play the role, and they asked and we had to pick it up. And this decision was made at the time of the Greek-Turkish thing. But that was not a provocative decision on our part? I don’t think so at all. It was a question of saving Greece and saving Turkey. The Russians obviously — at that time they had an open claim to two provinces of Turkey and there was a civil war going on in Greece.

I don’t know what these revisionists would have us do. One thing that they ought to remember is that there has never been a recorded case where the majority of the people ever voted the Communist regime in power.…And also that Communism is a room with no exit. None have ever been able to overcome it.

Every President has his own characteristics, and I think one of the difficulties of President Johnson was to come after such a President as John F. Kennedy to whom I was personally devoted. And he brought a whole new breath of change, a different thing. He was young, he was attractive, and it was very difficult for the President who comes after him, particularly in the sort of deification that occurred after his assassination.

 

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.

Return to Fascinating Figures

Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

 

“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.

 

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