Book: Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department

Author: Dean Acheson

Review by: Shelby Grubbs, managing member, Miller & Martin PLLC’s Atlanta office

Shelby Grubbs

Dean Acheson was perhaps an exemplar of “Eastern elitism.” A bishop’s son, he was educated at Groton, Yale and Harvard Law, served as a State Department official from 1941 to 1949 and became Secretary of State for four years starting in 1949. He married well and lived well. He worked among giants with giant egos – Roosevelt, Churchill, Eden, Keynes, DeGaulle – products of Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. 

Yet, this witty, incisive and inspirational book, winner of a 1970 Pulitzer Prize, is dedicated to a relatively modest man without a college degree: Harry Truman. For Acheson, the 33rd president was “the captain with a mighty heart.”

While acknowledging that any memoir risks self-justification, Acheson is not defensive about setbacks — e.g., Korea and China — or self-aggrandizing about his role in what was “created” in his “presence,” from the Marshall Plan to NATO and the United Nations.

Acheson himself emerges as a giant in character — if not quite so tall as President Truman — as well as in intellect, drive and energy. As it turns out, the president and his secretary of state were not so dissimilar. Theirs was a chaotic world of revolution, aggression, subversion and nuclear proliferation. Both addressed monumental challenges with open minds, insisting on hearing all sides of all issues.

Moreover, both brought to their work a clear sense of values, among them loyalty. In 1950, Acheson’s friend Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury. Acheson, without endorsing Hiss’s alleged perfidy, refused to turn his back on a friend, citing among his reasons Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 19:25-40 to visit “the least of these” in prison.

Afterwards, Acheson offered his resignation to Truman, who responded: “If you think [I] would have had you do anything else, you’ve mistaken me. Go back and get to work.”

Read Mr. Grubbs’s previous reviews:

Books 2018: Greatest Generation’s Greatest Contribution: Enacting Justice for War Crimes

Books 2017: Western Liberalism Under Threat

Books 2016: A Quest Through Britain’s — and the Author’s — Historical Center

Books 2015: Amorous Anthropologists Star in This Tale on Cross-Cultural Work

Books 2014: Rowing for Gold in Berlin, Inspiring a Generation

Editor’s note: This review is part of Global Atlanta’s annual project asking influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued each year since 2010. Purchases through the Amazon affiliate links at top will provide a commission to Global Atlanta. All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.