What Comes After Acheson’s Creation? He was present at the outset of the old order. His insights could help our leaders develop a new one.

Let’s step back from the daily chaos and look at a big, pressing question. Last fall at a defense forum a significant military figure was asked: If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one big thing you’d give the U.S. military right now?

We’d all been talking about the effects of the sequester and reform of the procurement system and I expected an answer along those lines. Instead he said: We need to know what the U.S. government wants from us. We need to know the overarching plan because if there’s no higher plan we can’t make plans to meet the plan.

This was freshly, bluntly put, and his answer came immediately, without pause.

The world is in crisis. The old order that more or less governed things after World War II has been swept away. The changed world that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall is also over.

We’ve been absorbing this for a while, since at least 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. But what plan are we developing to approach the world as it is now?

Harry Truman with Dean Acheson
Harry Truman with Dean Acheson

I always notice that a day after a terrible tornado hits the Midwest the television crews swarm in and film the victims picking through what’s left. People literally stand where their house was, their neighborhood was. In shock, they point at some flattened debris and say, “That was our living room.” They rummage around, find a photo. “This was my son’s wedding.”

That’s sort of what a lot of those interested in foreign policy have been doing in recent years—staring in shock at the wreckage.

But something has to be rebuilt. Everyone now has to be an architect, or a cement-pourer, or a master craftsman carpenter.

It’s been instructive the past week to reread a small classic of statecraft, “Present at the Creation” by Dean Acheson, published in 1969. As undersecretary and then secretary of state he was involved in the creation of the postwar order.

After the war the world was in crisis, much of it in collapse. “The period was marked by the disappearance of world powers and empires, or their reduction to medium-sized states, and from this wreckage emerged a multiplicity of states . . . all of them largely undeveloped 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.” The Cold War had begun. China was in civil war, about to fall to communism. Europe’s economy had been destroyed. Europe and Asia were “in a state of utter exhaustion and economic dislocation.” The entire world seemed to be “disintegrating.”

What came after the crisis was the Marshall Plan, in which the U.S., itself exhausted by the war, helped its allies, and enemies, survive and resist communism. The objective, as the Truman administration declared it, was not relief but revival—spending American money to bring back agriculture, industry and trade. New financing was needed from Congress, in amounts then thought impossible—hundreds of millions that became billions.

It was an effort appropriate to its time. Apart from its essential good—millions didn’t die of starvation, nations such as Greece did not fall to communism—it brought America more than half a century of the world’s sometimes grudging but mostly enthusiastic admiration. They now knew we were not only a powerful nation but a great people. This was not unhelpful in times of crisis down the road.

It is exciting at a time like this to read of the development of a successful foreign-policy effort from conception to execution. And—how to say it?—Acheson’s first-rate second-rateness is inspiring. This was not a deeply brilliant man, not a grand strategist, but more a manager who was a good judge of others’ concepts. He could see facts—he had sturdy sight—and spy implications. He had the gift of natural confidence. He could also be clueless: One of his most respected aides was the Soviet spy Alger Hiss.

But Acheson was gutsy, willing to throw the long ball, and a first-rate appreciator of the gifts of others. He thought George Marshall, who preceded him as secretary of state, the greatest American military figure since George Washington. He is moving on the subject of Harry Truman. You are lucky if you can love a president you serve, and he did. Unlike FDR, Truman was not devious but plain in his dealings; also unlike FDR, he was not cold at the core but available. After Truman left office, a friend of Acheson’s, visiting the new White House, was told as a man went into the Oval Office: “Oh, he’s going in to cheer up the president.” Acheson’s friend replied, “That’s funny, in our day the president used to cheer us up.”

Acheson: “Harry S. Truman was two men. One was the public figure—peppery, sometimes belligerent, often didactic, the ‘give-’em-hell’ Harry. The other was the patient, modest, considerate and appreciative boss, helpful and understanding in all official matters, affectionate in any private worry or sorrow.” Truman “learned from mistakes (though he seldom admitted them), and did not waste time bemoaning them.”

What is inspiring about Acheson’s first-rate second-rateness is that he’s like a lot of those we have developing foreign policy right now.

Acheson, though he did not present it this way, provides useful lessons for future diplomats in future crises.

Everyone’s in the dark looking for the switch. When you’re in the middle of history the meaning of things is usually unclear. “We all had far more than the familiar difficulty of determining the capabilities and intentions of those who inhabit the planet with us.” In real time most things are obscure. “We groped after interpretations of [events], sometimes reversed lines of action based on earlier views, and hesitated before grasping what now seems obvious.” “Only slowly did it dawn upon us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the nineteenth century was gone.”

Don’t mess things up at the beginning. Acheson’s insight was that it wouldn’t work to put forward the Marshall Plan and then try to sell it to the public. The way to go was to explain to Congress and the public the exact nature of the crisis. This, he believed, would shock both into facing facts. While they were doing that, a plan to deal with the crisis was being developed. “We could not afford a false start.”

Be able to see your work soberly. Keep notes so history will know what happened. “Our efforts for the most part left conditions better than we found them,” Acheson says. Especially in Europe, which was dying and went on to live.

Cheer up. Good things can come of bad times, great things from fiercely imperfect individuals.

Even though you’ll wind up disappointed. All diplomats in the end feel frustrated over missed opportunities and achievements that slipped away. “Alas, that is life. We cannot live our dreams.”

Still to be answered: What is America’s strategy now—our overarching vision, our big theme and intent? What are the priorities? How, now, to navigate the world?

That soldier needs an answer to his question: What do you need from us? What’s the plan?