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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

Book cover: Acheson and Empire

Author's response


Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy

John T. McNay
University of Missouri Press
ISBN 0826213448; pp. 219, 2001

Dianne Kirby

University of Ulster, Jordanstown
Thinking 'Outside the Box'

Dr Dianne Kirby has done a service to the scholarly community with her nuanced review of a group of interesting new books on the Cold War.

One of the most valuable points Kirby makes is that the advent of the new sources from the former Soviet Union or elsewhere has not lessened the importance of the long-opened archives of the West. There is always the opportunity to evaluate old evidence with a new perspective, while the new archives can certainly add to the story of the Cold War. Gregory Mitrovich's work, for example, joins that of Vlad Zubok and Andrei Pleshakov and others in a clear demonstration of the value of the new archives.

The compilation of materials by Klaus Larres and Ann Lane is also a useful contribution to the study of the Cold War and I look forward to assigning the book in my own courses. Fraser J. Harbutt has again provided us a valuable tool in evaluating various Cold War policies and events.

Kirby's review of my own work was fair and judicious. The prevailing view of Dean Acheson as a realist is deeply entrenched and simplistic and needs to be re-evaluated. I have succeeded if I have been able to get more historians and general readers to think 'outside the box' of Cold War dogma. Also, I believe it is useful to critique the frequent disconnection between the personal history of policymakers and the policies they make. Acheson's Ulster Protestant heritage, transferred to him through his family, caused him to view the world in ways that were significant, specifically in his romantic idealisation of empire and the forms of empire he encountered as secretary of state. As an old mentor of mine once said: 'Memory is the compass of our actions.' Policymakers do not simply leave behind who they are when they enter high office. Knowledge of the worldviews they carry with them can enhance our understanding of the decisions they make.

Given what we know now about Dean Acheson, his role in the early Cold War deserves renewed attention. In fact, there is evidence of a new movement of more critical scholarship of the Truman administration and the early Cold War.

Arnold Offner's Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945–1953 (Stanford, 2002) is an example of such work. Much of the historiography of the 1990s portrays Harry Truman as a plain-spoke simple man who successfully rose to the challenge of his office and correctly gauged the nature of the Soviet threat. In contrast to that trend in the literature, Offner's Truman was unable to overcome his 'parochial and nationalistic heritage' (p. xii). This caused Truman to have an uncritical belief in the superiority of American values and political-economic interests, Offner argues, and a tendency to demonise those who would not bend to the will of the US. As a result, Offner maintains that Truman's foreign policy 'intensified Soviet-American conflict, hastened division of Europe, brought tragic intervention in Asian civil wars, and a generation of Sino-American enmity' (p. xii).

Many readers may object to Offner's consistent placing of blame on the US rather than the USSR for the Cold War. Offner does overreach in nearly absolving the Soviet Union of blame in the conflict. Likewise, if Truman was as incapable and uninformed as Offner argues then perhaps it would be more useful to look elsewhere in the administration for the faults in American policy. Yet, Offner seems as determined as Truman that the 'buck stops' at the presidency. In any case, Offner's study will work to restore some balance to the historiography that has in recent years placed virtually all the blame on the Soviet Union and personally on Stalin. Offner also should be credited with the rare use of such phrases 'policymakers believed' or 'policymakers understood'. These are common and often valuable tools in trying to summarise complex diplomatic and political approaches. Yet, these phrases often blur real debates in the making of policy and obscure individual responsibility, as well as missed opportunities.

With regard to my own work, I would like to suggest a couple of areas where I believe Acheson and Empire provides some new perspectives. With the end of the Cold War, there is now a great opportunity to 'think outside the box' that Cold War ideology constructed for many observers. Ann Lane in her valuable introductory historiographical essay in The Cold War, makes an important point that a contextualisation of American foreign policy has been hindered because of the absence of significant archival material from the Soviet side. Now the gradual opening of Russian and, to some extent, East European archives have begun to correct that problem. I believe that my work on Acheson is doing something very similar. I have worked to place Acheson in the context of his own personal history because it is in that history that Acheson's perceptions and misperceptions are rooted. Once it is understood that Acheson is not operating in some kind of vacuum but rather from a mental world created by his upbringing, experience and education then it is possible to more deeply understand his motivations. My study is no attempt to psychoanalyse Acheson. It is, however, an effort to put him in a more accurate context than has been uncovered in previous work.

I think Frank Ninkovich expresses the idea regarding the necessity of placing a policymaker in his/her own personal context very well in his interesting book, The Wilsonian Century (Chicago, 1999):

We cannot help but approach the world from a historical frame of mind because it is built-in. We all make sense of the world by situating ourselves historically in narratives that cover our personal lives, our family sagas, and our place in larger national and international dramas. The facts and the narrative frameworks are products of human selectivity and inventiveness, but the need to understand historically is part of our makeup as human beings. (p. 8)

Thus, when Acheson had the opportunity to describe his origins in his autobiographical work, Morning and Noon, he did not say his father had been born at a military base in England. Rather, he got to the most important facts as he saw them. His father was 'the son of an Ulster-born, Scotch-Irish British soldier' who had 'a south-Irish mother from Cork, descendant of English settlers brought there by Henry II to live "within the pale."' He could not have drawn his imperial heritage more sharply or separate his ancestry more clearly from the indigenous Irish. Acheson said of his own mother that she had a great love of empire untainted by her Canadian nationality.

Once that context had been demonstrated, it was then necessary to examine what its impact was likely to have been on his foreign policy design. While I am original in explaining the importance of Acheson's links to the Protestant ascendancy's worldview, I am not original in seeing something Victorian about his attitudes. John L. Harper, for example, while recognising the Victorian nature of Acheson's thinking, did not understand its imperial character and thus did not connect it to his policies in the former colonial world, perhaps because of overlooking its Ulster Protestant dimension. I am reasonably certain that had Acheson's heritage stemmed from the British settler community in India, rather than Ireland, that its importance would not have been overlooked to this point.

I do not argue in the book, then, that Acheson was simply pro-British. Rather, Acheson was pro-Empire and sought to preserve those structures of organisation and control in the former colonial world. Rather than being the cold-eyed realist, Acheson's decisions in the former colonial world were tinged with a nostalgic admiration of empire. This is counter to those who would argue that post-war American foreign policy was always aimed to supplant the former imperial powers. Acheson viewed the imperial heritage as a clear and positive benefit to the areas that were colonised. In fact, when Britain did not seem up to its imperial responsibilities, Acheson was perfectly willing to critique the British as well. His ardent defense of Rhodesia's independence and critique of London in the 1960s is an obvious example. Given his worldview, he was never able to understand the anger and impatience of many in the former colonial world.

Some might view Acheson and Empire as anti-British and pro-isolation. I think something near the opposite is true. Britain was misled by the United States about the true possibilities in the Anglo-American alliance. The result was that the British were encouraged to stay on in the Middle East and elsewhere long beyond their real ability to do so. Britain was as much a victim of Acheson's worldview as were the emerging nations. The cold hard reality of the limits of Anglo-American partnership became clear after Acheson was out of office, to the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and to the British at Suez in 1956. Similarly, I do not argue in the book for a kind of isolationism. To the contrary, I believe a more international and multilateral policy in the early Cold War, one not so wedded to supporting British imperial interests, would have been more beneficial to all concerned – including Britain. The French effort in Vietnam is probably the most obvious example of an imperial power being encouraged during Acheson's tenure at State to stay engaged in the colonial world far beyond its own ability to do so.

Certainly, as a reader would work through my book, it would be possible to say that Acheson was being a realist in this case or that. The strength of the argument, I believe, is that Acheson's pro-imperial stance is so very consistent from place to place over time. There is none of the flexibility of the realist there but rather the determination of an imperial true-believer even as that world was collapsing (or already had collapsed) around him.

The result of Achesonian diplomacy in the former colonial world is that much of the resentment which was reserved for the British because of their imperial control began to transfer to the United States, as the hand-in-glove relationship with Britain became clear. In large part, the origins of the legacy of resentment toward the United States, particularly in the Middle East, is rightly or wrongly, partly a legacy of Dean Acheson's foreign policy design and is something the United States continues to struggle with today.

December 2002

Original review

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