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Unpublished letters from Dean Acheson to Ex-President Harry Truman
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
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—