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Updated: July 2, 10:59 pm PT
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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.
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