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Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department Paperback – September 17, 1987
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"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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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?
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This book was fascinating and time travel. Dean Acheson was so intelligent and captures the era.Published 6 months ago by aliveoh
Acheson begins by describing his arrival at the State Department and the prominent personalities in world leadership at the time. Read morePublished 6 months ago by Lazarus
Immensely readable! It has taken me a long time to almost make it thru all of "Present." But it has been more than well worth it. Read morePublished 12 months ago by lidz
Great read covers a changing time in dipolomacy. Intersting to read looking back 60 years to compare it to diplomacy today. Read morePublished 19 months ago by workerbee