Dean Acheson

American statesman and lawyer (1893-1971)

Dean Gooderham Acheson (April 11, 1893October 12, 1971) was the United States Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman. He was known to have played a large part in writing the Truman Doctrine, and was well-known for his anti-Communist views.

Dean Acheson in 1965


  • The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull.
    • Oxford dictionary of quotations
  • Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.
    • Speech at West Point (5 December 1962), in Vital Speeches, January 1, 1963, page 163.
  • I am willing to join in your statement on the ground that I feel about the future of the United States whenever the President starts out on his travels the way the Marshal of the Supreme Court does when he opens a session of that Court. You will recall that he ends up his liturgy by saying "God save the United States for the Court is now sitting.
    • Grapes from Thorns (1972), page 67.
  • Vietnam was worse than immoral — it was a mistake.
    • Reported in Alistair Cooke, Letter from America: 1946-2004 (2004), page 378.
  • How could the USA champion individual freedom in the world generally while denying it to an important minority in its own country.
    • Civil rights in the USA, 1863 - 1980 , 2001, Page 107.

Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (1969)


Purpose of the Book

  • The experiences of the years...have brought the country, particularly its young people, to a mood of depression, disillusion, and withdrawal from the effort to affect the world.
  • In response, Acheson wrote to "tell a tale of large conceptions, great achievements...Its hero is the American people."

State Department Management / Leadership Perspectives

  • Plainly plenty of work was waiting to be done. The question was: would the State Department do it? I proposed to have a shot at finding out.
  • General Marshall was "impatient with a type of nonsense particularly prevalent in the State Department known as 'kicking the problem around.' All of us who have work with General Marshall have reported a recurring outburst of his: 'Don't fight the problem, gentlemen, solve it!' With him the time to be devoted to analysis of a problem, to balancing 'on the one hand' against 'on the other hand,' was definitely limited. The discussion he wanted was about plans of action"
  • I must plead guilty as any of escaping into immediate busywork to keep from the far harder task of peering into a dim future, which, of course, should be one of a diplomat's main duties.
  • My of a department without direction, composed of a lot of busy people working hard and usefully but as a whole not functioning as a foreign office. It did not chart a course to be furthered by the success of our arms, or to aid or guide our arms. Rather it seems to have been adrift carried hither and yon by the currents of war or pushed about by collisions with more purposeful craft.
  • ...the Assistant Secretary in Charge of Administration (was) a job which should be undertaken only by a saint or a fool...the House and Senate subcommittees in charge of appropriations, their chairmen, and the Comptroller General's office make this job a perfect hell. Like an ill-tempered chatelaine of a medieval manor, her keys hanging from her belt, Congress parsimoniously and suspiciously doles out supplies for the shortest time, each item meticulously weighed and measured, each request at first harshly denied. Almost simultaneously yesterday's accounting goes on amid screamed accusation and denunciation of every purpose of policy."
  • Among the roles the Budget Bureau (now OMB) was that of constant critic and improver of administration in the federal executive branch. In my day this work had fallen to the products of graduate schools in civil administration. Their ideas...seemed to me theoretical nonsense.
  • The heads of these divisions, like barons in a feudal system weakened at the top by mutual suspicion and jealousy between king and prince, were constantly at odds if not at war...For the most part the barons were knowledgeable people performing in a way the times had completely outdated, a fact of which they were quite unaware.
  • I soon discovered that the greater part of a day in Old State was devoted to meetings. Where the boundaries of jurisdiction were fuzzy or overlapping, meetings became inevitable. Most questions affected a number of functional and geographic divisions...These meetings gave the illusion of action, but often frustrated it by attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. What was most often needed was not compromise but decision.
  • When Acheson was first joined State as Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs, he writes the following in a section entitled "My Search for a Function"..."My official duties were summed up in the Department of State Bulletin by misleading platitudes...Both (Secretary) Hull and the President...knew me and, surely, had not asked me into the Department to perform the largely nonexistent duties defined in the Bulletin."
  • "...old inhabitants of the bureaucratic jungle like (Secretary) Hull knew that Cabinet boards and committees were paper tigers. They made a fine show in a parade but soon dissolved in the rain...After attend a few meetings (of this board), the Secretary deputized me to 'explain his absence' and substitute for him.
  • Not all the arts of diplomacy are learned solely in its practice. There are other exercise yards."
  • No change (Marshall replacing former SecDef. Louis Johnson, who, soon after he resigned, was diagnosed with a fatal "brain malady") could have been more welcome to me. It brought only one embarrassment. The General (Marshall) insisted, overruling every protest of mine, in meticulously observing the protocol involved in my being the senior Cabinet officer. Never would he go through a door before me, or walk anywhere but on my left; he would go around an automobile to enter it after me and sit on the left; in meetings he would insist on my speaking before him. To be treated so by a revered and beloved former chief was a harrowing experience. But the result in government was, I think, unique in the history of the Republic. For the first time and perhaps, though I am not sure, the last, the Secretaries of State and Defense, with their top advisors, met with the Chiefs of Staff in their map room and discussed common problems together. At one of these meetings General Bradley and I made a treaty, thereafter scrupulously observed. The phrases 'from a military point of view' and 'from a political point of view' were excluded from our talks. No such dichotomy existed. Each of us had our tactical and strategic problems, but they were interconnected, not separate.
  • In the State Department, one never lacks for helpful suggestions.

Budget Perspectives

  • Unfortunately, the hyperbole of the inaugural outran the provisions of the budget.
  • President Truman used to say that budget figures revealed far more of proposed policy than speeches.

Truman Doctrine / Cold War

  • 147, on the situation in Greece: "imminent collapse due to mounting guerrilla activity, supplied and directed from outside, economic chaos, and the Greek governmental inability to meet the crisis."
  • On the need to respond to the crisis in Greece, and broaching the subject of the Truman Doctrine ("it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.") with Congress: "In the past eighteen months, I said, Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran, and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe. The Soviet Union was playing one of the greatest gambles in history at minimal cost. It did not need to will all the possibilities. Even one or two offered immense gains. We and we alone were in a position to break up the play. These were the stakes that British withdrawal from the eastern Mediterranean offered to an eager and ruthless opponent."
  • "Only immediate assertion of leadership by the United States could prevent war in the next decade...The President and the Secretary of State must shock the country into a realization of its peril..."


  • On the France's Indochina involvement: "They were engaged in the most dangerous of all activities – deceiving themselves...France was engaged in a task beyond her strength, indeed, beyond the strength of any external power unless it was acting in support of the dominant local will and purpose."

Foreign Aid

  • "The test for aid to poor nations is therefore whether it makes them capable of being productive. If it fails to do so, it is likely to make them even poorer in the – not so very – long run."

Middle East

  • "I did not share President's view on the Palestine solution...The number that could be absorbed by Arab Palestine without creating a grave political problem would be inadequate, and to transform the country into a Jewish state capable of receiving a million or more immigrants would vastly exacerbate the political problem and imperil not only American but all Western influence in the Near East."
  • "President (Truman) observed (that) 'to asure the Arabs that they would be consulted (prior to official US recognition of Israel) was by no means inconsistent with my generally sympathetic attitudes toward Jewish aspirations.' The Arabs may be forgiven for believing that this did not exactly state the inconsistency as they saw it."
  • "Throughout the Near East lay rare tinder for anti-Western propaganda: a Moslem culture and history, bitter Arab nationalism galled by Jewish immigration under British protection and with massive American financial support, the remnants of a colonial status, and a sense of grievance that a vast natural resource was being extracted by foreigners under arrangements thought unfair to those living on the surface. This tinder could be, and was, lighted everywhere..."


  • "I was a frustrated schoolteacher, persisting against overwhelming evidence to the contrary in the belief that the human mind could be moved by facts and reason."
  • "The position of the United States had undergone a drastic change; the purpose and capabilities of the State Department had not."
  • a "mixture of frustration and progress is the daily grind of foreign affairs."
  • "… the situation was still too delicate for complete candor and the ultimate truth too unformed for statement."
  • "The qualities which produce the dogged, unbeatable courage of the British, personified at the time by Winston Churchill, can appear in other settings as stubbornness bordering on stupidity."
  • "The best environment for diplomacy is found where mutual confidence between governments exists..."
  • "The conclusion was...unpalatable to believers in American omnipotence, to whom every goal unattained is explicable only by incompetence or treason."
  • "It is a mistake to interpret too literally and sweepingly the poet's admonition that things are not what they seem. Sometimes they are, and it is often essential to survival to know when they are and when they are not."
  • "… talk should precede, not follow, the issuance of orders."
  • "Force can overcome force, but a free society cannot long steel itself to dominate another people by sheer force."
  • "There is perhaps nothing more important in the world today than the steadiness and consistency of the foreign policy of this Republic. Too much depends on the United States for us to indulge in the luxury of either undue pessimism or premature optimism."
  • "The simple truth is that perseverance in good policies is the only avenue to success..."
  • "My constant appeal to American liberals was to face the long, hard years and not to distract us with the offer of short cuts and easy solutions begotten by good will out of the angels of man's better nature...The road to freedom and peace is a hard one."
  • "If I have said nothing new tonight, it may well be because, in a family of nations as in families of individuals we should expect nothing more sensational than growth."
  • To State Department employees: "Yours is not an easy task nor one which is much appreciated. You don't ask much of your fellow citizens, and if any of you are so inexperienced that you ever do, you will receive very little. Certainly not much in the form of material recompense; certainly not much in the form of appreciation for your work, because you are dealing with matters which, though they affect life of every citizen of this country intimately, do it in ways which it is not easy for every citizen to understand. And so you are dealing in a field which I called the other day a field of 'alien knowledge,' which seems strange to many of your fellow citizens … We have a tradition in this country of skepticism about government, of looking at it very carefully, of seeing whether our public servants can take it. That isn't always comfortable, but, on the whole, it is good. Any time when there are governments in the world which are crushing the liberties of their citizens, it is good that in this great country people look with some skepticism upon government as such. That is one of our traditions … "
  • Acheson's State Department "comrades...played a vital role in setting the main lines of American foreign policy for many years to come and...they may feel in their hearts that it was nobly done."
  • Acheson "never for one moment believed that the holding of office was a source of power – it was an obligation of service."

Quotes about Acheson

  • Wake up, America. Your liberties are being stolen before your very eyes. What Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln fought for, Truman, Acheson, and McGrath are striving desperately to nullify. Wake up, Americans, and dare to think and say and do. Dare to cry: No More War!
    • The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968)
  • As you know, very recently the secretary of state proclaimed his loyalty to a man guilty of what has always been considered as the most abominable of all crimes — of being a traitor to the people who gave him a position of great trust. The secretary of state, in attempting to justify his continued devotion to the man who sold out the Christian world to the atheistic world, referred to Christ's Sermon on the Mount as a justification and reason therefore, and the reaction of the American people to this would have made the heart of Abraham Lincoln happy. When this pompous diplomat in ugly pants, with a phony British accent, proclaimed to the American people that Christ on the Mount endorsed communism, high treason, and betrayal of a sacred trust, the blasphemy was so great that it awakened the dormant indignation of the American people. He has lighted the spark which is resulting in a moral uprising and will end only when the whole sorry mess of twisted warped thinkers are swept from the national ugly so ugly that we may have a new birth of national honesty and decency in government.
    • Joseph McCarthy, Speech in Wheeling, West Virginia (9 February 1950), as quoted at Civics Online
Wikipedia has an article about: