Present at the Creation, by Dean Acheson

Present at the Creation is Dean Acheson's memoir of his years in the State department from 1941 until the end of Harry Truman's adminsitration in January 1953. It is a big chunk to digest, clocking in at over 700 pages of text (not including footnotes, notes, and index). In addition to its sheer length and the huge breadth of material covered, it's written at an extremely literate and challenging level. Most books published today are written at the reading level of high school graduates - Dean Acheson pulls no punches when it comes to sentence structure. He is much smarter than me. I'm ok with that - it's just not something I often get out of a book.

Due to the fact that reading it actually took concentration, it took me an unusually long time to finish it - I've renewed it twice already and I'm going to owe some fines when I take it back to the library tomorrow. But I never wanted to give up. The material is fascinating and Acheson is a really great narrator. He is consistently brilliant at communicating the drama of the events he helped unfold. There are lots of funny stories (any memoir that includes meetings with Winston Churchill is bound to have some) and as I noted earlier, unlike Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton he is NOT shy about slamming people or ideas. (Neat perspective reading this after The Education of Henry Adams - Adams describes Henry Cabot Lodge (senator from MA) often. Lodge's grandson, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., is Senator of MA through much of the volume.) He doesn't stick to diplomacy but also describes the political conflicts he engaged in. It was an education - of course I knew about McCarthyism, but I did NOT know that General MacArthur was basically fired from command of the Korean War for a) losing and b) mouthing off to the press. I knew what the Marshall Plan was but I didn't know who General Marshall was. I also didn't really know how delicate the balance was in the power struggle against Russia and Communist China so soon after World War II.

Acheson dedicates the book to Truman and it's clear that he loved and respected him. He's free with praise for many of the people he worked with in the State department and many of his counterparts. He also is frank about disliking many people in Washington and abroad. The jacket copy calls him 'savage in his criticism'. About halfway in I started bookmarking particularly juicy passages.

Here are some gems:

Senator McCarthy. "He read Hitler....fellow boarders in the boardinghouse McCarthy lived in and patrons of the same barbershop he used had reported that McCarthy would produce Mein Kampf and read from it, chuckling and saying, 'That's the way to do it'. But he was essentially a lazy, small-town bully...."

Senator Robert Taft: "a defect of Taft's otherwise excellent mind, which Justice Holmes found also in that of Justice John Marshall Harlan the elder. 'Harlan's mind," he said, "was like a vise, the jaws of which did not meet. It only held the larger objects.'"

"...the French Minister of Defense, Georges Bidault, was present. He was one of the most rattlebrained men I have ever tried to work with."

"General Eisenhower's attitude perplexed me.....He seemed embarrassed and reluctant to be with us - wary, withdrawn, and taciturn to the point of surliness."

And a comment appropriate for the times regarding Presidential power:

"The capacity for decision, however, does not produce, of itself, wise decisions."

1 comment:

Doc NOS said...

"The capacity for decision, however, does not produce, of itself, wise decisions."

I love it. Thank you! I'd only add that not making a decision is also a decision.