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Unpublished letters from Dean Acheson to Ex-President Harry Truman
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Now as to the behavior of daughters and the position of the father of the bride. Daughters, I have found, take this business of marriage into their own hands and do as they please. So do sons—or perhaps someone else’s daughter decides for them. I explained most lucidly to Mary and Dave [his children] that they should wait until the end of the war to get married. So they got married at once. All in all, the father of the bride is a pitiable creature. No one bothers with him at all. He is always in the way—a sort of backward child—humored but not participating in the big decisions. His only comforter is a bottle of good bourbon. Have you plenty on hand? January 15, 1957
I wish it were possible for us to coordinate our efforts a little better on foreign policy matters. Your article in last Sunday’s New York Times … has, I am afraid, cut a good deal of the ground out from under an effort to put some sense into the Administration’s foreign policy and to put some fighting spirit into the Democrats.
Your article says that “Congress has no alternative but to go along with the President in this program.” If this is so, then I spent four useless hours before the Foreign Affairs Committee and a good many useless days of work in devising what I thought an excellent alternative, and one which was thoroughly in accord with steps which had been taken during your Administration.
The article says later on, “Now that the President proposes to adopt a clear-cut policy of action, we should do everything to back him up. ” I do not think that, upon reflection, you will really regard this as a clear-cut policy. In fact, there is no policy about it at all, as I tried to show in the statement before the Committee, which David Lloyd sent to you.
Again, the article says that “We must at this stage accept the President’s assessment of what the situation is, for only the President is in possession of all the facts. ” This seems to me a wholly artificial view to take. I don’t think we have to accept the President’s assessment; and I doubt very much that he is in possession of more facts than the rest of us here. Certainly he is not in possession of any more than Dulles told him about, and I would hesitate to rely on that source of information.
Finally, the article says, “The proposals made by the President, when approved by the Congress, will strengthen the position of the free world. ” Again, I don’t think they will strengthen it at all. There are alternative courses of action which would strengthen it far more.
However, the main purpose of this note is not to stick on what has been done, but to urge that in the future we try to get together and not be at cross purposes. I had thought that we were in agreement when you were in Washington. I did not know that you were about to publish an article saying that you would, if you were a Senator, vote for a proposal which I was about to urge Congress to supplant with a better one.
December 20, 1957
In your letter to me of December 5,1957, spurred by your incurable (thank God) curiosity, you asked me this question: “Do you know the word meaning an initial standing in a name but signifying no name itself, as the’S’ in Harry S Truman?”
You know, and so do I, how to get at a question of this sort. In my youth an advertisement used to say, “Ask the man who owns one.” So I asked the two people who might know—and, of course, they were women—Elizabeth Finley, the librarian of Covington & Burling, past-president of the law librarians of the country, and Helen Lally of the Supreme Court library. Their reports are enclosed.
The essence of the matter is that we are blind men, searching in a dark room for a black hat which isn’t there. The “S” in Harry S Truman (no period after “S”) does not “stand for anything.” Therefore, it cannot have a descriptive noun—“vacuum,” “nothing,” etc., are already pre-empted. But, more positively, it is something—not representatively, but absolutely. You are “S” (without a period) because it is your name. For instance, you appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (may God forgive you) whose name is “Tom [Clark]. ” Now “Tom” usually stands for “Thomas. ” But not in this case. There it stands for nothing—absolutely nothing—except, of course, Tom himself, which may—who knows?—be the same thing.
So, you see, “S” is your middle name, not a symbol, not a letter standing for nothing, but an inseparable part of the moniker of one of the best men I have known in a largely misspent life. The same … could be said of “Harry.”
“Harry” stirs all my deepest loyalties. The senior partner, who brought me up, was christened “J. Harry Covington"; and what a man he was! After years in Congress (he was one of the men who, in 1912 in Baltimore, brought about the nomination of Woodrow Wilson), he had a phrase which to me epitomizes the political obligation, perhaps among the most honorable obligations because resting on honor alone. He never said of an obligation—“I have to do it. ” He always said, “I have it to do.” What a vast difference! In the first, one is coerced into action; in the other, a free man assumes an obligation, freely contracted.