Dean Acheson Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
Dean Acheson

Assistant Secretary of State, 1941-45; Under Secretary of State, 1945-47; and Secretary of State, 1949-53.

Washington, D.C.
June 30, 1971
by Theodore A. Wilson and Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This interview was done for a special research project to study foreign aid during the Truman Administration and is therefore limited in subject and scope. The project was funded by the Harry S. Truman Library Institute for National and International Affairs.

As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Acheson transcript.

See also: Dean Acheson Papers

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened May 1986
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with

Washington, D.C.

June 30, 1971

by Theodore A. Wilson and Richard D. McKinzie


WILSON: At the end of the war and the first year thereafter, was the role that the State Department, perhaps, saw itself as playing, one not just in planning but in the administration of programs? There is some suggestion that some people within the Department thought that State would take an active role and that others were horrified by this. I wonder if you would have any comments on that question?

ACHESON: I think that you have just about said it. I would think that--as I recall the thing, which is only vaguely--there were many people, including the older members of the State Department, who believed that it was not our role to undertake eradication of "hoof and mouth disease," and a few various other things around


the world, feeding people, or building factories, or that sort of thing. There was a view which is pretty sound, I think, that this really had to be done by more technically qualified people; and if you got all those damn people at the State Department overcrowding us with a lot of administrative tasks which are alien to what we were trying to do, with this view, why, I had sympathy. The question was in getting things done in a quick way. A whole lot of things are mixed up in foreign aid--a few being Point IV--the Greek-Turkish program. of course was a crash course, and that had to be treated differently. There we did administer, and we did everything we had to do, which was not to be a permanent part of the effort of the Department.

I wasn't a fusser about who really should do things, but there wasn't anybody who was equipped or able to do this sort of thing; therefore, if we could do it for the time being, we picked up somebody who knew about it and got him over in Greece or Turkey or wherever the hell we had to send somebody. I just don't remember that this was a great issue of any kind.


If so, everybody would have said, "This is nothing we want to go on doing." We actually went on doing it far too long, I think. We finally got John Bingham and other people in, and that very nice old man who was killed in the airplane.

MCKINZIE: Henry Bennett.

ACHESON: He was in there. We did a lot of that. This was really in default of finding anybody else who was capable. I don't know who would have done it had we hadn't.

WILSON: When the big program came, the very large program, the Marshall plan, and then followed MSA, the documentation we've seen suggests that because the State Department was not the administering agency for all this aid, it was placed--or at least the tone of the relationship between the State Department and ECA, then MSA--the documentation suggests it was a negative one.

ACHESON: Was a what?


WILSON: Was negative in the sense that the State Department had a veto over certain kinds of actions but, at least from the ECA side, the State Department did not have positive control. Is that at all fair, or is the documentation leading us wrong as it often does? Perhaps an example would be this question of economic integration in Europe. The documentation suggests that Hoffman and Harriman and a number of people in ECA were very strong for this, and that State was acting as a brake.

ACHESON: I don't really know whether it was acting as a brake or not, but I should think you are right. We were probably saying, "Take it easy, do what you are supposed to do."

MCKINZIE: These things are all so innovative that came out of these years, the whole idea of massive injections of developmental capital and particularly the business of extending technological assistance, did it not strain a little bit the traditional idea of what a diplomat was supposed to do? We've been concerned about rigidity versus flexibility in departments, and


I gather that it took some little stretching of things to get the idea of technical assistance incorporated?

ACHESON: Yes, I think this is true, and, of course, then people didn't realize as clearly as they realize now that we were dealing with something as fundamental as we, were. It didn't really strike home to us that the British Empire was gone, the great power of France was gone, that Europe was made out of four or five countries of 50,000,000 people. I still looked at the map and saw that red on the thing, and, by God, that was the British Empire, the French Senegalese troops in East Asia and in Germany--all of this was gone to hell. These were countries hardly much more important than Brazil in the world. If we had known all of that, and seen what we were really trying to do, to use this instrument of foreign aid to bring about an integrated Europe, we would have just said, "Sure this is the very essence of diplomacy;" but I don't think that any of us really saw it that way. Therefore, I think our judgment was colored by


a lack of comprehension of the reality. And although you could put it in any kind of way, these were stuffy old diplomats who never wanted to get out of the tea party and pick up the slide rule. We didn't see that this was that important. This was an outgrowth of UNRRA. This was relief work, like taking care of the present Pakistan refugees. They all were together, too. They kind of grouped together under the Red Cross. That was more the attitude of it.

WILSON: In a sense, then, President Truman's inaugural address of 1949 can be thought of as breaking away from the wartime patterns and immediate postwar patterns of thought, as well as going forward in something new (in a number of directions in our mind)--and I think your book has suggested this--and it announced that the United States was going to take a very strong and new, in some ways, position, if necessary acting alone.

ACHESON: Yes, I think probably the most imaginative view of it was my press conference where the Point IV program was announced, when I talked about using "material means


for immaterial purposes." That's reproduced in Present At The Creation. I think this was way ahead of the President himself. I don't think he had thought this thing out at all. This was really Clark Clifford's contribution and it was written out. The State Department didn't think a hell of a lot of it, and the President overruled the State Department and put it in. I don't think General Marshall ever put his mind on it at all; he was sick. We were really making a lot out of nothing, and I tried to blow it up so it had more intellectual content than even I thought it really had.

MCKINZIE: Now this may be an unfair question, but do you think that after it was created and in operation, that it did what you anticipated it might be able to do?

ACHESON: To some extent, yes. It was really not until the Schuman plan came along that the possibilities of this sort of thing began to be seen. I don't think I really saw it until Jean Monnet talked with me about the Schuman plan.


WILSON: Another basic problem we have to face in our work is the negative contribution of the United States Congress with regard to foreign aid. It comes up again and again that Senator Kem or the Wherry amendment, et cetera, et cetera. If there had been no such institution, how much difference--maybe this is putting the question wrong--but how much difference would it have made for the programs that were carried forward? Would the administration have been much more bold than happened on occasion, if it didn't have that check?

ACHESON: I think probably so, but this is sort of an unreal question . . .

WILSON: Yes it is.

ACHESON: . . . because in order to get the money you have to go to a non-executive branch . . .

WILSON: Perhaps putting a real question--it is our impression that so many of the Representatives and Senators with whom you had to deal were amazingly uneducated about the problem?


ACHESON: You see, you all start with the premise that democracy is some good. I don't think it's worth a damn. I think Churchill is right, the only thing to be said for democracy is that there is nothing else that's any better, and therefore he used to say, "Tyranny tempered by assassination, but lots of assassination." People say, "If the Congress were more representative of the people it would be better." I say the Congress is too damn representative. It's just as stupid as the people are; just as uneducated, just as dumb, just as selfish. You know the Congress is a perfect example, and created to be a perfect example. We are sure to get Rooney out of Brooklyn. He is absolutely perfect. He couldn’t represent anything better than he does Brooklyn. He’s the perfect type.

WILSON: There have been a few.

ACHESON: A damn few.

WILSON: By accident.

ACHESON: In the old days when liberalism didn’t persist


and Senators were elected by the legislatures, you got some pretty good Senators, because they were not representative.

WILSON: These people in Congress practiced the representative principle in their view, that is, they did vote, on the basis of what they thought were the prejudices or views of their constituencies, or did they?--in that sense there was very little in the way you could do to educate them.

ACHESON: There wasn't very much, you did some. Vandenberg is a typical example of somebody who got educated, and I think, very largely, Cordell Hull did this. He took a fellow from Grand Rapids, who was a perfect editor of the Grand Rapids newspaper. He didn't look any further than furniture, not a bit. And Hull began to tell him about the world. What you had to do to get certain results. And Van was sort of open-mouthed at this, he said, "My God," it was sort of like having Marco Polo come home and talk with you. "I'll be damned, you really mean it's like that?" "Yes, it really is." And he said, "Well, God, then we're going to do something


about it." Then he became a fellow who had ideas but never strolled far off first base.

MCKINZIE: Bob Taft, I take it, was uneducable in these matters?

ACHESON: Well, Bob was very educated on certain things. Public housing he knew a lot about and was for, and was radical as hell on that; but so far as them foreigners out there are concerned, to hell with them, they didn't vote in Ohio and they were not good, and shiftless. Get a good Army, Navy and Air Force, and to hell with it.

WILSON: How deep did bipartisanship go? That is something that we have been wrestling with.

ACHESON: Well, don't let it bother you too much. Bipartisanship was a magnificent fraud. I had a group of Williams students in here today, and they said that James MacGregor Burns, who teaches there, had come up with the idea that bipartisanship in foreign policy was a grand thing. And I said, "Well, don't take him very seriously either." The question, who is it bad


for, and who is it good for, is what you ought to put your mind on. If it is only good for the Senate of the United States, this doesn't get you anywhere. Bipartisan foreign policy is ideal for the Executive because you cannot run this damn country under the Constitution any other way.

Now, the way to do that is to say, politics stops at the seaboard, and anybody who denies that postulate is "a son of a bitch and a crook and not a true patriot." Now, if people will swallow that, then you're off to the races. I said Van swallowed it, but every once in a while he knew it was a fake. And he would say to me, "What the hell happens on election, do you go around my State of Michigan and say what a grand man Senator Vandenberg is because he voted for this, that, and the other, and you ought to reelect him?" He said, "Not at all. Say some labor leader runs against me, and is an isolationist that isn't worth a damn; he's a fine Democrat and the President gets photographed with his arm- around him shaking his hand. Now," he said, "this is fraud."

I said, "Sure it's a fraud, but it's a necessary


fraud. You won't get much mileage out of opposing the administration, you get a little going along, perhaps break even, 50-50." I said, "of course, the biggest fraud of all was President Truman when he said the 80th Congress is the do-nothing Congress." I said to President Truman, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, that is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American people. The 80th Congress was the best Congress in foreign policy we ever had. We were damn lucky to have it. And you've come up with this idea and got elected, and I'm glad you did, I think it's fine, that's all right; but it is ridiculous and is not at all true."

He said, "Well, it worked."

No, I wouldn't be too serious about bipartisanship. It's a great myth that ought to be fostered. And don't bring too damn much scholarship to bear on it. You'll prove it out of existence if you're not careful.

MCKINZIE: This is one thing that we've been most struck by in the work we've done, is that you can raise this stuff to the level where human beings, and


human emotions are completely absent from it. Particularly in this trip to Washington, as we've talked to people, most people end up telling us, you know, after all, Government is a matter of people and that personal relationships end up being as important as the process and the rest of it.

ACHESON: That is right. It isn't the fact that policy is nonpartisan that's important, it's the fact that it's good. Now, th