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Theodore Achilles Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Theodore Achilles

Served as Foreign Service officer, U.S. Department of State, 1931-62. In addition to his other service, served as 1st sec., American Embassy, London, 1945, Brussels, 1946; director for Western European Affairs, Dept. of State, 1947; U.S, vice deputy, North Atlantic Council, London, 1950, and minister at Paris, 1952. Attended the UN Conf. on Internat'1 Org., San Francisco, 1945; Council of Foreign Ministers, London, 1945; first session UN General Assembly, London, 1946, 2nd session, New York, 1947; Paris Conference, 1946; North Atlantic Pact negotiations, 1948-49, NATO, 1950, 1952, 1960; and CENTO, SEATO, and Colombo Plan Conferences, 1960. Also served as Ambassador to Peru, 1956-60.

Washington, D.C.
November 13 and December 18, 1972
Richard D. McKinzie

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


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee, but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

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 Achilles transcript.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 March, 1976
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.
November 13, 1972
Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Ambassador Achilles, at the end of the Second World War I believe you were First Secretary in the Embassy in London, is that correct?

ACHILLES: A bit later. From 1941 to 1945 I was here in Washington as Chief of the British Commonwealth Division in the State Department. I went back to London as First Secretary shortly after V-J Day, but actually at the end of the war I was still here in the



MCKINZIE: Do you have any personal recollections of Mr. Truman's coming to office?

ACHILLES: Yes, I do. Little things. At that time my office was on the east side of the State Department, on the third floor, overlooking the White House. Fairly late one afternoon I saw the White House flag starting down the flagpole and I thought, "It isn't quite sunset yet, somebody's being a little bit early." The flag stopped at half-staff, and a few minutes later, a secretary came in out of breath saying, "President Roosevelt is dead."

I remember hearing a few days later that in the next two hours after President Roosevelt's death had been on the radio that the new President and Mrs. Truman had something like twelve telephone calls asking to rent


their apartment.

My first sight of President Truman came at the San Francisco Conference, which took place shortly after that. Our Secretary of State [Edward R., Jr.] Stettinius, put on a large reception for President Truman to meet the delegates, and my first impression of Mr. Truman was, "This little fellow looks much more like the president of a very small-town country club than like the President of the United States," but we learned to develop a great respect for that little fellow in the years to come.

In September of that year I was assigned to London and also detailed as Secretary of our delegation to the first Council of Foreign Ministers which met in London immediately after V-J Day to try to negotiate peace treaties with Italy and Germany and the eastern


European countries.

Secretary of State [James F.] Byrnes, who had just become Secretary of State, was chairman of our delegation. John Foster Dulles went and represented Senator [Arthur H.] Vandenberg, who was then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Jimmy [James C.] Dunn was the second-ranking member of the State Department. Chip [Charles E.] Bohlen was there as interpreter and also adviser on Soviet affairs. Jimmy Byrnes was quite new to the process; he had been in Congress, in the Senate, and a Supreme Court justice.

At the end of the first day's meeting, as usual, I typed up a telegram to the State Department reporting what happened that day. I took it to Jimmy Dunn who initialed it, and took it to Secretary Byrnes for signature. Secretary Byrnes looked at it and said, "What's



I said, "This is the usual telegram to the State Department reporting what happened."

Byrnes said, "God Almighty, I might tell the President sometime what happened, but I'm never going to tell those little bastards at the State Department anything about it."

There was a fairly tough situation the next few days in the Council of Foreign Ministers. We were making a little progress towards negotiating a treaty of peace with Italy. The Russians were being obstinate and difficult, but no more so than usual. But, one morning Molotov opened the session by declaring that unfortunately the whole procedure was illegal. There were five governments represented at the talks: our United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union, France, and China. Molotov announced, obviously on the basis of


new instructions overnight, that the French and Chinese had no business to be there and he would not participate any further in the Conference.

That presented everyone else with a real choice. Should we ask the French and the Chinese to leave, try to work out agreements with the Russians and the British; or, should we stand firm and insist that they continue there and risk the breakup of the conference? I remember at the time thinking that that might mark the transition from a short-lived postwar era to the beginnings of a potentially prewar era.

Secretary Dulles records in his book War and Peace, that he followed Secretary Byrnes up to his bedroom that night and insisted that Secretary Byrnes take the hard line, that France and China should stay regardless of whether the Russians broke off


the conference or not. Byrnes was of two minds, but Dulles was quite persuasive. As I say, Dulles recalls that in his book. Shortly after the book appeared and I had read it, I met Mrs. Dulles at a cocktail party and told her that I had just read that chapter and vividly recalled that day at the London Council of Ministers.

She said, "Foster wrote that he had followed Jimmy Byrnes into his bedroom to tell him that, but he didn't write in his book that he'd also followed him into his bathroom and told him that if he took any other course Senator Vandenberg would denounce him on the floor of the Senate the next day."

After a year in London and a year in Brussels I returned to Washington as Chief of the Division of Western European Affairs, and it became my duty with Jack Hickerson, to concentrate for the next year and a half


on negotiating the North Atlantic Treaty and getting it ratified.

Somehow, the North Atlantic Treaty will always be associated in my mind with fishhouse punch. The Metropolitan Club in Washington always holds open house on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Christmas Eve they serve free drinks and charge you for lunch and New Year's Eve they charge you for drinks and serve free lunch. Between the two they make a tidy profit. But, having just come back from abroad, I forgot to go to either of them. On that New Year's Eve [December 31, 1947] I was sitting at my desk, slightly drowsy in the middle of the afternoon, when my immediate chief, Jack Hickerson, Director of the Bureau of European Affairs, came into my office, well mellowed by fishhouse punch and said, "I don't care whether entangling alliances have


been considered worse than original sin ever since George Washington's time. We've got to negotiate a military alliance with Western Europe in peacetime and we've got to do it quickly."

I said, "Fine, when do we start?"

He said, "I've already started it. Now it's your baby. Get going."

He sat down and elaborated. He had been with General [George C.] Marshall, who succeeded Jimmy Byrnes as Secretary of State, at the last meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in London in December [1947]. That meeting had broken up with no progress on negotiating the treaties which they had been trying to negotiate for the last two years. The night it broke up the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, invited General Marshall to dinner alone in his apartment. That night,


after dinner, he made a statement to General Marshall, which was almost word for word the same one he made in the House of Commons two or three weeks later. He said, and I quote, "There is no chance that the Soviet Union will deal with the West on any reasonable terms in the foreseeable future. The salvation of the West depends upon the formation of some form of union, formal or informal in character, in Western Europe, backed by the United States and the dominions, such a mobilization of moral and material force will inspire confidence and energy within and respect elsewhere."

At that point Western Europe was devastated, prostrate and demoralized and it badly needed confidence and energy within. With the Soviet armies halfway across Europe and still at their full wartime strength and the Communist parties


the largest single political elements in France and Italy, something to inspire Soviet respect was equally essential.

The only moral and material force adequate to deter further Soviet expansion was a combination of that of the United States and Western Europe together. Some form of union was definitely essential, but there was a great question as to what form and between whom.

The next morning Secretary Marshall told Dulles and Hickerson of Bevin's words. He was impressed, but he thought that the union should be purely European, with the United States supplying material assistance. He had made his famous Marshall plan speech at Harvard only six months before and was still trying to get Congressional authorization for it. He did not want to complicate that


task any more than was absolutely necessary.

Secretary Marshall flew home. Dulles and Hickerson came by sea. Jack Hickerson was convinced that a European union backed by U.S. material assistance would not be enough, that only a moral commitment by the United States to do whatever was necessary, including to fight if necessary, to restore and maintain a free and solvent Europe could create that "confidence and energy within and respect elsewhere."

By the time they reached Washington, Foster Dulles had substantially accepted that line of reasoning. Dulles undertook to convince Senator Vandenberg, then Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Hickerson undertook to convince Marshall. Jack Hickerson and I had both read Clarence Streit's, Union Now, and had been deeply impressed by it. We shared


enthusiasm for negotiating a military alliance and getting it ratified as a basis for further progress towards unity.

Early in January, Bevin made his historic speech in the Commons saying substantially what he had said to Marshall, and he inquired in a private message to Secretary Marshall what the U.S. might be prepared to do about it.

Jack Hickerson drafted a reply, but Marshall balked. Jack's draft reply would have given Bevin very substantial encouragement. The reply Marshall finally signed insisted that the nations of Western Europe first show what they were prepared to do for themselves and each other, after which we would consider sympathetically what we might do to help. That was to be our theme song for the next few months: "Show what you're prepared to do for yourselves and each other, and then we'll think


about what we might do."

Bevin's message also stated that he hoped to realize a network of bilateral alliances between Britain, France and the Benelux countries, each ostensibly aimed at any new threat from Germany, but actually and equally valid against any Soviet aggression.

We had recently concluded, and the Senate had ratified, the Rio Treaty by which the nations of the Western Hemisphere constituted themselves a collective defense arrangement under the U.S. Charter to respond individually and collectively to any armed aggression.

Jack's draft reply to Bevin contained, and Marshall accepted, the suggestion that a similar collective defense arrangement between Britain and France and the Benelux countries would be far preferable to .a network of bilateral alliances. Bevin bought the


idea. Senators Vandenberg and [Thomas] Connally, who had been on the delegation that negotiated the Rio Treaty, and to safeguard its provisions had fought at San Francisco for authorization for collective defense arrangements under the UN Charter, heartily approved.

It would be a long time before anyone would admit publicly that we were even considering a treaty. But, Jack and I knew clearly from the beginning what we were working for.

The international situation at the time, including actual and threatened Soviet territorial expansion, the increasingly vigorous and violent threat of the Communist parties in Western European countries, are well-described in the official NATO book, NATO: Facts about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, published in 1965.


As far as we were concerned, Jack, right from the beginning, laid down two important ground rules. One was that the Senate, through the Foreign Relations Committee, was to be involved from the start. Its "advice" was to be sought constantly all the way through, rather than merely its "consent" to a signed and sealed treaty.