Unpublished letters from Dean Acheson to Ex-President Harry Truman
Dean Acheson, who served as Secretary of State under Harry S Truman from 1949 to 1953, kept up a lively and unusual correspondence with the former President after the two men left office. Acheson's letters were lively because their author was a witty and elegant writer; they were unusual because he was no sycophant. The letters reflect Acheson s respect and affection for his chief, along with a readiness to assert his own views that mixed inquiry, mischief, advice, and admonition, befitting a correspondence between two retired statesmen in a democracy. This article is excerpted from Among Friends: The Personal Letters of Dean Acheson, edited by David S. McLellan and by Acheson’s son, David C. Acheson, soon to be published by Dodd, Mead & Co.
February 10, 1953
You and Mrs. Truman have been constantly in our thoughts these last three weeks. We see glimpses of you in papers weeks old and read fragmentary reports of you. But you are more vivid in our minds. We have spoken often of that last poignant day together and shall never forget the sight of you on the back platform as the train grew smaller and smaller down the track. We wish that you would both escape to the peace and privacy for a while of a place like this enchanted and blessed isle [Antigua] where the sea and air and all around us combine to make rest and relaxation inevitable and delightful. We read and sleep and swim—Alice [Acheson’s wife] paints—we keep the world and its doings away from us. But we talk about the great epoch in which you permitted us to play a part—and which now seems ended in favor of God knows what.
The well known envelope with your name in the corner and your handwriting on it lying on our hall table always quickens my heart. Yesterday’s letter was no exception. … What you say about the Great General is frighteningly true. I had a letter from a friend who writes: “I am anxious and worried increasingly from day to day as that fumbling silence in the White House seeps out over the country like a cold fog over a river bed where no stream runs. ” Ike’s abdication has given us that Congressional government, directionless and feeble, which de Tocqueville feared would result from the Constitution. And it comes at the very time when your policy of building strength and unity would have paid great dividends as the Russians ran into the period of weakness and division which the succession to Stalin inevitably created. You remember that we used to say that in a tight pinch we could generally rely on some fool play of the Russians to pull us through. Now that is being exactly reversed. They now have, as invaluable allies, division, weakness and folly… .
And it is not only Congressional government, which must always fail because it cannot provide an executive, but Congressional government by the most ignorant, irresponsible, and anarchistic elements—anarchistic because their result, if not their aims, is to destroy government and popular confidence in it. I think that you are quite right that you and I are very likely to be in for another period of attack and vilification.… But as you say we have won many fights in the past and need not fear others in the future. It is, nonetheless, a distasteful waste of time and effort.
November 23, 1955
…Let me end up this rambling letter with an episode which illustrates my cold and frigid manner, which has been so often described in the press. Last Thursday morning I was walking east on 38th Street in New York from a friend’s house to the air terminal and was not quite sure that the terminal was on 38th Street. On Third Avenue there were four or five men with picks and shovels digging up a broken place in the pavement, surrounded by the yellow barricades with “Men Working” which give them a little island of safety. I stopped there and asked one of them whether I was on the right street for the air terminal. One of them looked up from his work, beamed broadly, and said, “For the love of God, if it ain’t Dean Acheson. I seen you on the Dave Garroway show on television yesterday morning.” At that point they all threw down their tools, shook hands with me, and we discussed for five mintues the prospects of a Democratic victory in 1956. None of them seemed to be dismayed by the cold exterior.
March 27, 1956
Consolation is just what I can give. In the first place about Margaret’s choice [Margaret Truman had just become engaged]. She has always had good judgment and has shown it again here. Alice and I had dinner with them here on his birthday—just a year before we celebrated it in Independence with you—and were completely captivated by Clifton Daniel. He has charm and sense and lots of ability. On the way home I told Alice that there was romance in the wind and that I was all for it. She somewhat acidly remarked that I had so monopolized Mr. Daniel that she hadn’t been able to get any idea of Margaret’s view of him, and that I was getting to be an old matchmaker. This only made my triumph all the sweeter when the announcement came. I stick by my guns and am sure that the man Margaret has chosen is first class and just the one for her. Marriage is the greatest of all gambles. But character helps and my bets are all on the success of this venture.
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.
This has a good deal to do with politics—about which you have always thought I knew nothing—in those reaches of it which fit men for government. There are some reaches which unfit them. Honor is a delicate and tricky concept. It does not mean standing by the unfit because of friendship. But it does mean standing by in time of trouble to see a fair deal, when the smart money is taking to the bushes. All of this I learned from the old judge, and relearned from you in unforgettable days.
So I say that “S” is a good name as it stands, and I am for it. Should either of us have the good fortune to have another grandson, let’s agree to persuade his parents to a middle name of just plain “S” with no period, and no explanation.
Indeed, no explanation is possible, because it is the most truly international name. In 1200 B.C. it appeared in the Phoenician as a sort of wobbly “W,” but was, unhappily, pronounced sin. By 900, in the Cretan, it looked like a 3 and had become san, a great improvement. For the next 500 years the 3 was turned around. Then the Latins, Irish, and Saxons, for some odd reason, turned it into a ” V. ” Finally, the British, as they have so often done, got the thing straight in a wiggle, from right to left to right, but not until our colonial ancestors … printed it half the time as an “f ” to you and me.
That again is why I like “S” for you. It has had one hell of a tempestuous life.
June 27, 1960
As the Convention approaches we partisans are likely to become, shall we say, emphatic in our statements to the press. Could we make a treaty on what we shall not say? On the positive side we can, and doubtless will, say that our candidate—yours and mine—has all the virtues of the Greats from Pericles through Churchill. St. Peter and the Pee-pul forgive this innocent though improbable hyperbole. But there are some things that no one should, and few will, forgive.
These fall into several groups, but the common denominator is the harm that comes from allowing the intensity of the personal view to dim a proper concern for the common cause. The list of the “It’s not dones,” as I see it, goes like this:—
(a) Never say that any of them is not qualified to be President.
(b) Never say that any of them can’t win.
(c) Never suggest that any of them is the tool of any group or interest, or is not a true blue liberal, or has (or has used) more money than another.
The reason: At this point public argument is too late—Deals may still be possible. I just don’t know. But sounding off is sure to be wrong. If our candidate is going anywhere—which I doubt—it will not be because of public attacks on other candidates. And such attacks can do a lot of harm when they are quoted in the election campaign.
(a) Do not say that they are communist inspired. The evidence is all the other way, despite alleged views of J. Edgar Hoover, whom you should trust as much as you would a rattlesnake with a silencer on its rattle.
(b) Do not say that you disapprove of them. Whatever you think you are under no compulsion to broadcast it. Free speech is a restraint on government; not an incitement to the citizen.
The reason: Your views, as reported, are wholly out of keeping with your public record. The discussion does not convince anyone of anything. If you want to discuss the sociological, moral and legal interests involved, you should give much more time and thought to them.
(a) For the next four months do not say that in foreign policy we must support the President.
The reason: This cliché has become a menace. It misrepresents by creating the false belief that in the recent disasters the President has had a policy or position to support.
This just isn’t true. One might as well say “Support the President,” if he falls off the end of a dock. That isn’t a policy. To urge support for him makes his predicament appear to be a policy to people who don’t know what a dock is. So, please, for just four months let his apologists come to his aid.
We have got to beat Nixon. We shall probably have to do it with Kennedy. Why make it any harder than it has to be. Now, if ever, our vocal cords ought to be played on the keyboard of our minds. This is so hard for me that I have stopped using my cords at all. By August they will be ready to play “My Rosary.”
So I offer you a treaty on “don’ts.” Will you agree?
July 17, 1960
So far in 1960 Jack Kennedy seems to have handled himself very well. In his match with you, in his handling of Lyndon (who made quite a goat of himself), Adlai and the whole convention I find it hard to fault him. This is by no means the same as saying that he arouses enthusiasm. Neither candidate does that. If their joint appearances don’t stir some interest, the campaign may turn out to be one of these pitchers’ duels, where neither side gets a hit and the paying customers go to sleep. If enough of us stay awake we can still win—
Do you get a funny sort of sense that, so far at least, there are no human candidates in this campaign? They seem improbable, like very lifelike puppets, who, or which, are operated by most skillf ul technicians. Both are surrounded by clever people who dash off smart memoranda, but it is not all pulled together, on either side, by and into a man. The ideas are too contrived. No one believes a congeries so suited to his apparent “voter need,” as Madison Ave would put it. Even Bob Taft was heretical enough to be for government housing. These two are so perfectly suited to someone’s idea of what they ought to be suited to that they bore the hell out of me.… Whew! What a lot of subversive stuff!
Do you really care about Jack’s being a Catholic? I never have. It hasn’t bothered me about de Gaulle or Adenauer or Schuman or DeGasperi, so why Kennedy? Furthermore I don’t think he’s a very good Catholic. But a Jehovah’s Witness would bother me badly. The whole public health service would go to hell overnight. Another question. You are quoted as saying that you won’t worry about the farmers anymore because they voted for Nixon. But did they. A lot of people in the farm states voted Democratic. What about them? Guilt by association? That ought to stir up the animal.
May 3, 1961
Why we ever engaged in this asinine Cuban adventure, I cannot imagine. Before I left [for Europe] it was mentioned to me and I told my informants how you and I had turned down similar suggestions for Iran and Guatemala and why. I thought that this Cuban idea had been put aside, as it should have been. It gave Europe as bad a turn as the U2. The direction of this government seems surprisingly weak. So far as I can make out the mere inertia of the Eisenhower plan carried it to execution. All that the present administration did was to take out of it those elements of strength essential to its success.
Brains are no substitute for judgment.…
…I find to my surprise a weakness in decision at the top —all but Bob McNamara who impresses me as first class. The decisions are incredibly hard, but they don’t, like Bourbon, improve with aging.
There is also a preoccupation here with our “image. ” This is a terrible weakness. It makes one look at oneself instead of at the problem. How will I look fielding this hot line drive to shortstop? This is a good way to miss the ball altogether. I am amazed looking back on how free you were from this. I don’t remember a case when you stopped to think of the effect of your fortunes—or the party’s, for that matter—of a decision in foreign policy. Perhaps you went too far that way, but I don’t think so. Our government is so incredibly difficult to operate that to survive in the modern world it needs the most vigorous leadership.
On Thursday a few of us, whom LBJ calls his panel of advisers, met with him for three hours to talk about Europe, Latin America and S. E. Asia. We were all disturbed by a long complaint about how mean everything and everybody was to him—Fate, the Press, the Congress, the Intellectuals and so on. For a long time he fought the problem of Vietnam (every course of action was wrong; he had no support from anyone at home or abroad; it interfered with all his programs, etc., etc.). Lovett, Bradley, McCloy and John Cowles were there with McNamara, Rusk and Fowler. I got thinking about you and General Marshall and how we never wasted time “fighting the problem,” or endlessly reconsidering decisions, or feeling sorry for ourselves.
Finally I blew my top and told him that he was wholly right in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, that he had no choice except to press on, that explanations were not as important as successful action; and that the trouble in Europe (which was more important than either of the other spots) came about because under him and Kennedy there had been no American leadership at all. The idea that the Europeans could come to their own conclusion had led to an unchallenged de Gaulle.
With this lead my colleagues came thundering in like the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo.…
The report about that birthday of mine was true and you were very kind to take note of it. My seventy-fifth year opened without noticeable pain. I am now getting accustomed to the idea, although it does run counter to an idea of myself which still hovers in my mind—that I am a promising lad and may get somewhere if I work hard and stay sober.
Poor old Adenauer is gone. Like Churchill he rather outlived his reputation and, as the British say, rather blotted his copy book in the last few years by the vindictive way he treated his less gifted successor. Both he and Churchill simply could not let go of power. Your predecessor had the same weakness but more reason for it. You were very wise and right in stepping down as you did. …
You yourself will have a birthday coming up soon and Alice and I will soon have been married for a half a century. Here’s good luck to all of us, and … much love from Alice and me.