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DEAN ACHESON: A Life in the Cold War. Robert L. Beisner. Oxford University Press.

Journalist Larry Chin has termed National Security Council paper 68 the policy basis for the Cold War.And as Robert L. Beisner’s biography of Truman’s Secretary of State shows, Dean Acheson was not only present at the creation of NSC-68, but was its chiefarchitect – if not its author.

Overseeing the drafting of NSC-68, Paul Nitze, later Kennedy’s Secretary of the Navy, worked nonstop from January, 1950 through April 1950 to develop a strategy to justify an arms race with the Soviet Union, establishing the philosophical underpinnings for a military-industrial complex which thrives to this day.

Acheson and Nitze were ruthless in their quest to obtain permission from Truman to implement the objectives of NSC-68 (as evinced by this description of a meeting on March 22, 1950 where Acheson and Nitze seem to sandbag Defense Secretary Lewis Johnson and General James Burns):

“Primed for a briefing of the principals, Nitze called a meeting for three P.M., Wednesday 22 March, in the PPS offices (Acheson lacked a decent conference room of his own). Arriving from DOD were Johnson, General Omar Bradley, Burns, Halaby and others. Admiral Sidney Souers headed the NSC and White House contingent. In a bizarre convulsion of bureaucratic discord, the meeting ended after fourteen minutes, with Johnson exiting in a huff and Burns sobbing. According to Acheson – in an account verified by Souers and State’s notetaker-the meeting started amicably with Nitze beginning to readand summarize an already circulated paper. Johnson, whom Acheson claimed to be ‘mentally ill’ suddenly ‘lunged forward with a crash of chair legs on the floor and fist on the table, scarring me out of my shoes.’ Johnson ‘shouted’ that people were holding unauthorized meetings, writing papers, and summoning him to conferences ‘contrary to his orders.’ ‘What was this paper?’ he demanded. Acheson recounted Truman’s instructions, reminded Johnson that he had named Burns to represent him, and that Nitze had senta twenty-seven page draft summary to him a week before. “But he would have none of it and gathering General Bradley and other Defense people, stalked out of the room. As others sat in shock, Burns ‘put his head in his hands and wept in shame.’”

(Page 239-240)

In the policy paper that so enraged Defense Secretary Johnson, Acheson and Nitze“advocated a ‘rapid build-up’ of both nuclear and conventional forces as part of a general increase in western ‘political, economic and military strength’ with the goal of attaining ‘clearly superior overall power’ for the United States.” [p.241].

Accordingly, Acheson had his way and Truman signed off on NSC-68 on April 7, 1950, notwithstanding that “NSC-68 considered it prudent to spend up to half the gross national product on national security.” Today, the goals of NSC-68 remainoperational in Iraq – and around the globe.

In his text, Beisner also shows the historical roots of imperialism in the Middle East, telling readers why countries like Iran remain unwilling to be co-opted into Western “democracies.” In describing Acheson’s intervention into Iranian politics and his attempts to mediate the conflict between Britain and Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mosadeq (termed “Mussy Duck” by Churchill), Beisner writes:

“Before long, Muhammad Mosadeq would supercede the youthful Shah as the focal point of Acheson’s attention. As prime minister, this magnetic leader would directly challenge AIOC, the British behemoth that, unlike most regional oil enterprises, produced a raft of valuable refined petroleum products. The London government held the majority stock in AIOC, its largest foreign investment. AIOC was a vital source of hard currency and of the petroleum powering the Royal Navy.Centered in the Abadan refinery in the delta of the Shatt-al-Arab river near the Persian Gulf, AIOC had long dominated the Iranian economy. Abadan was the world’s largest, most complex and versatile refinery and writes Howard M. Sachar, ‘an economic heritage of all but measureless value.’ While Iranians did the dirty work, Britons held the top jobs and took all of the profits, paying British ratherthan Iranian taxes. AIOC charged high prices in Iran for its products and bought Iranian politicians at low prices.”

(Page 538)

Both British leaders and oil interests had no illusions that Mosadeq intend to “purge” the British from Iraq at any cost, and Britain proceeded to move ships into the Persian Gulf to begin the aptly named “Plan Bucaneer.” Although the British “stood down” after protests from the United States, the chairman of the AOIC warned that “the Iranians would ‘crawl on their bellies and accept what we offered them.’ ”[p. 546]

And where did the U.S. stand in all of this?Ultimately, despite Byzantine intrigues which first included attempts by Acheson to compromise toward a middle ground, he ultimately only followed those same policies that he had implemented with NSC-68:

“Acheson had decided that he would not break with ‘our closest ally’ and the most important element of strength in the Western alliance outside of the United States.’ The Atlantic partners had to work together ‘just like pigeons.’ When one turned, ‘the others do it too. We have to fly wing to wing.’”

(Page 563)

After surviving multiple plots, Mossadeq was finally removed from power as the result of a 1953 coup known as Operation Ajax – orchestrated by the John Foster Dulles, the CIA (headed by Allen Dulles) and the British government (yet, as Beisner surmises, had Acheson been in office, the approval of such a coup would have been highly unlikely).

From the Editor: Beisner’s text serves as an erudite examination of one the most tumultuous periods in the last century, recommended as a supporting class text in any history or political science course which examines the era of the Cold War. Also recommended to all libraries in the public sector and at the college-level as a general reference text.

by Frank Aiello

© Frank Aiello. All rights reserved.


Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.

READING THE AMERICAN PAST. Selected Historical Documents. Volume 1: Through 1877. Michael P. Johnson. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

This is a companion to the primary text The American Promise, collecting myriad documents authored by the people who both made – and changed – American history. These kinds of readers are very important to student-learners who might be struggling with the task of placing a historical event in its proper context. Simply, by augmenting a primary text with a data-specific reader, students are empowered to explore a topic more deeply as they tear past the surface skin into the meat of the material. In this reader, documents like Andrew Jackson’s Farewell Address to the nation show the twists and turns in the road the country has taken on its ascension to world super-power.

Recommended as a supporting class text in any course addressing American history up to 1877. Unique and compelling, with the ability to hold the attention of the student who does not yet excel in the study of history.

by John Aiello

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2013 by in Reference.
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