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Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department Hardcover – 1969

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Editorial Reviews Review

Dean Acheson joined the U.S. Department of State in 1941 as an assistant secretary for economic affairs. Shortly after the end of World War II, he attempted to resign, but was persuaded to come back as under secretary of state; Harry Truman eventually rewarded Acheson's loyalty by picking him to run the State Department during his second term (1949 to 1953).

"The period covered in this book was one of great obscurity to those who lived through it," Acheson wrote at the beginning of his memoirs, first published in 1969. "The period was marked by the disappearance of world powers and empires ... and from this wreckage emerged a multiplicity of states, most of them new, all of them largely underdeveloped politically and economically. Overshadowing all loomed two dangers to all--the Soviet Union's new-found power and expansive imperialism, and the development of nuclear weapons." Present at the Creation is a densely detailed account of Acheson's diplomatic career, delineated in intricately eloquent prose. Going over the origins of the cold war--the drawing of lines among the superpowers in Europe, the conflict in Korea--Acheson discusses how he and his colleagues came to realize "that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the nineteenth century was gone," and that the old methods of foreign policy would no longer apply. Among the accolades Acheson garnered for his candid self-assessment was the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for history. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


“The passing decades confirm Dean Acheson's place as the clearest thinking, most effective Secretary of State of the twentieth century. As a writer he has no equal since Thomas Jefferson first occupied the office in the eighteenth century.” (Gaddis Smith, Yale University) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 798 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc; 1st edition (1969)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039307448X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393074482
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #198,647 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Acheson's book may be grist for debates among cold war ideologues.
Stan Vernooy
In fact, if had added personal details about his life, it would have defeated the whole purpose of the book.
For all of that, I found the book quite readable, and important to anyone interested in postwar history.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

73 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Stan Vernooy on February 16, 2001
Format: Hardcover
A brief objective description of the book: Dean Acheson was Harry Truman's Secretary of State. In that role, he was instrumental in setting the tone and direction of our foreign policy, especially toward the Communist bloc, at the very beginning of the post World War II era [hence the title of the book]. This book is his memoir of the years he spent in the State Department. He discusses how decisions were reached and how the policies were implemented. Acheson was an articulate and engaging writer, but only people interested in the subject of cold war foreign policy are likely to enjoy reading all the way through this book. If you are such a person, I expect you'll find the book captivating and brilliant.
But here's how the book affected me personally: Like most people interested in politics, I always held fiercely to my opinions about what we should have done or shouldn't have done in our cold war foreign policy. I listened to or read political speeches by George McGovern, Jesse Helms, Henry Wallace, Joe McCarthy, and everyone in between. But it was only when I read this book [and then followed it by reading "Diplomacy" by Henry Kissinger - another excellent book] that I realized that for decades I had been spewing forth opinions without knowing what I was talking about. Acheson does a wonderful job at describing the considerations that had to be taken into account before coming to conclusions on the many critical issues that faced the U.S. in those years, and he really opened my eyes.
It wasn't that Acheson's book taught me that I was wrong about any one particular issue. I didn't come away feeling that I had been too "hawkish" or too "dovish" about anything.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By on January 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
Dean Acheson, who was Secretary of State in the Truman Administration, has written an outstanding autobiography---one that deserved the Pulitzer Prize, which he received in 1970. In Present at the Creation, we receive the 'inside scope' on the most serious issues of Acheson's day: the agreement to form NATO, the war in Korea, the removal of General MacArthur, and so on. While providing essential historical information, too, Acheson writes lucidly, presenting his story in a prose that reads like a novel, only (in this instance) a novel that actually happened. This is an excellent book, one I highly recommend.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 18, 1997
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Dean Acheson was deputy and acting secretary of the Treasury under FDR in the early 1930s, assistant and then under secretary of State from 1941 until 1947, and secretary of State under Truman from 1949 until 1953. Only President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State (and Defense) George C. Marshall (and, of course, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, ne Dugashvili) had more to do with making the post-World War II world as we knew it.

Acheson titled his memoirs--highly egocentrically, for he was a highly egocentric man, certain of his own righteousness, intelligence, and good judgment--"Present at the Creation." The reference is to the king Alfonso the Wise of Castile, who in the thirteenth century had ironically noted that had he been present at the creation, he could have given good some useful hints.

Acheson was present at the creation of a new world--the post-World War II world--and he did much more than give a few hints. The U.S. post-WWII policy of engagement to spend tens of billions of dollars helping western Europe rebuild bore his imprint, as did the policy of economic and political "containment" of the Soviet Union that began with the 1947 Truman Doctrine. The U.S. post-Korean War policy of confrontation--that the U.S. would be willing to go toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union and its proxies in many different corners of the world, and would build up a military that could quickly project massive force anywhere in the globe (the policy of NSC-68)--was in many ways his invention.

Present at the Creation is his self-assured justification of what he did and suffered, with blasts at his critics both on the left and on the right. He makes a very strong case for his (and his boss President Truman's) policies. And on finishing the book you wonder where are today's equals of Acheson in talent, in decisiveness, and in self-righteousness?
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By R. H OAKLEY on September 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
Dean Acheson's memoir is devoted almost entirely to his service in the State Department following the end of the Second World War. He provides almost no details about his background or private life, and covers his pre-war career in a few chapters. This allows him to concentrate on what really matters, his history of post-war foreign relations.
Acheson truly was "Present at the Creation" in that he participated in the creation of the postwar structure designed to contain communism after Stalin installed puppet goverments in Eastern Europe. During his tenure, he was criticized from the left for being too hawkish, and from the right as being either a communist or a communist sympathizer. The latter charges were particularly ridiculous; Acheson had no illusions about the Soviet Union, but he also had no intention to start World War III if it could be avoided.
Some will find the details of how agreements were reached with our allies tedious. However, these details are essential to understanding the limitations under which Acheson worked. He rightly viewed it essential to strive to revive Western Europe, and to treat these countries as allies, not puppets. The result of this foresight was NATO, and the decades-long consensus amoung Western Europe and the United States concerning how to deal with the Soviets.
Acheson was highly valued by Truman, and it is easy to see why. In addition to being intelligent and experienced in foreign affairs, Acheson (like Truman) was a great believer in loyalty. Thus, when Truman returned to Washington, Acheson was the only cabinet member to meet him at the train station, a gesture Truman never forgot.
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