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Unpublished letters from Dean Acheson to Ex-President Harry Truman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